Rugby Union: The Powell hit parade

As England's new-age professionals attract the attentions of media managers, a forgotten hero is trying to rebuild his career; Andrew Baker meets the former DJ giving the fame game a new spin
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The Independent Online
Nothing could sum up the transformation that rugby union has undergone better than the boardroom walls of the James Grant management company. Hanging on the elegant Georgian panelling are portraits of the artists that the company represents: Anthea Turner (wife of one of the company's principals, Peter Powell), Caron Keating (wife of the other, Russ Vincent - "James Grant" is a conflation of Powell's and Vincent's middle names), Mike Read, Andi Peters, Emma Forbes and a select few other solidly bankable media stars. And next to them, portraits of four of the company's recent recruits: Phil de Glanville, Lawrence Dallaglio, Andy Gomarsall and Alex King. It is an eloquent testimony to rugby's arrival as a popular - and lucrative - mainstream entertainment business.

Dallaglio appeared on A Question of Sport last week, and he seemed calm, relaxed and witty. So had Powell, with all his broadcasting experience and connections, coached his young charge? "Absolutely not," the former disc-jockey insisted, grinding out a Rothmans in one of the boardroom's groovy light-blue glass ashtrays. "We work hard to find people who are talented and have good characters. People who can play their butt off on the pitch and then show afterwards that they are not one- dimensional characters. That is the dream ticket for us."

The house style at the office near Twickenham is laid-back: jeans, sweatshirts and stubble are the dress code. But that should not be mistaken for laziness. Powell, the pop-picker-turned-prop-picker, is an enthusiast and an enthuser: he leaps around the room and slaps his hand on the table, making optimistic predictions about the future of the sport in which he has recently become interested.

"I was at the Wasps v Quins game the other week," Powell said, "and there was such a buzz it was fantastic. That effect is going to filter down to the other clubs, and the English game is going to be the most incredible force in world rugby over the next few years."

Driving that force will be two of Powell's players, the England captain, de Glanville, and the man who was widely tipped for the job, Dallaglio. The next tier of talent, Gomarsall and King, seem likely to be established in time to feature in the next World Cup - or so Powell hopes.

But why do rugby players - who five years ago barely needed Filofaxes - suddenly need managers? Ashley Woolfe, Powell's 28-year-old colleague who deals with the players on a day-to-day basis, explained. "Because of the status of Will Carling, when Phil got the England captaincy the interest was massive. Alan Shearer's appointment to the football job got nothing like the same level of interest. In that week we had more than 100 requests for his time, ranging from cereal commercials to every possible press angle. Phil wanted to spend time with the team, and focus on them, but at the same time he was concerned that he should not come across as aloof. It was a delicate job."

Woolfe reckons that the job is about being "best friends" with the players, but that is the fan in him speaking. Powell, a self-confessed "appalling winger" in his school days, is more restrained. " `Best friend' is not quite right," he said. "But we aim to be a damn good companion. For the players, we are the engine room, we are a rock, we must be steady, mature, comforting, friendly. We have to have their trust and respect, otherwise you can just forget it."

All of which is no doubt very reassuring to the players, though they may be a little disconcerted to hear Powell talk of them as "brands" of which he and his team are the "board of directors", language more often associated with the Square Mile than the oval ball.

De Glanville and Co will be relieved to hear that as brands they are expected to have a long shelf-life: Powell's company turns down 100 would- be clients a year, and when they do take someone on it is for the long term. In the case of the rugby players, this means nurturing the careers of the younger ones - negotiating, for instance, a change of university for King - and picking just the right kind of endorsements for the older players. And when the playing days are finally over (de Glanville, Woolfe revealed, reckons he has five years at most left in him), the "talent" will be steered in other directions. Given the strength of Powell's roster, television careers seem likely.

Fame and fortune await his chosen quartet, all of whom can expect to earn six-figure annual salaries before long. Unless the rugby boom, which managers such as Powell and Wolfe are undoubtedly fuelling, exhausts the funds of the clubs and burns out. Woolfe is suitably cautious. "Wages will level off," he said. "And a transfer market will undoubtedly develop. In the meantime, it is up to the governing bodies to make sure the game develops in a stable way."

Powell's office overlooks the show garden of an architectural salvage firm, where statues of mythical beasts bear price tags. An appropriate view for a man marketing the legendary British Lions of the future.