Blowers the Kiwi with a Northampton heart

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The Independent Online

Premiership Clubs spend an awful lot of hard cash on overseas talent, some of it in pursuit of a signature rather than as the result of one. Only last week, Rob Andrew and Jonny Wilkinson travelled from the North-east of England to the north island of New Zealand in an attempt to sell the charms of Tyneside to Rupeni Caucaunibuca, a Fijian wing of Lomu-esque proportions whose name would be an interesting addition to the Geordie lexicon. If a proportion of such expenditure can be easily justified in terms of value-for-money, the rest of it disappears down the plughole.

Premiership Clubs spend an awful lot of hard cash on overseas talent, some of it in pursuit of a signature rather than as the result of one. Only last week, Rob Andrew and Jonny Wilkinson travelled from the North-east of England to the north island of New Zealand in an attempt to sell the charms of Tyneside to Rupeni Caucaunibuca, a Fijian wing of Lomu-esque proportions whose name would be an interesting addition to the Geordie lexicon. If a proportion of such expenditure can be easily justified in terms of value-for-money, the rest of it disappears down the plughole.

Take Bath, for instance. A few years ago, they moved heaven and earth to sign German Llanes, a huge donkey of an Argentinian second-row forward who had just wrecked England's line-out at Twickenham. Llanes quickly became known as "Eeyore" - not because he was unusually miserable, or had lost his tail in the Hundred Acre Wood, but because the local supporters serenaded him thus: "Eeyore, Eeyore, 'E ought to **** off home."

Then there was Alessio Galasso, a French prop of some ability, who appeared to take long sabbaticals on full pay every time he hit a ruck.

Neither man lasted long, but they left with their bank balances considerably enhanced.

On the other hand, Northampton could quadruple the salary of Mr Andrew Blowers of Auckland and still worry about short-changing him. The All Black flanker moved from Eden Park to Franklin's Gardens three-and-a-half years ago, and has barely missed a tackle, let alone a match. By common consent, he is one of a very select group of foreign internationals - Michael Lynagh, Philippe Sella, Va'aiga Tuigamala, Pat Lam, Joel Stransky, Pat Howard, Brendan Venter and David Wilson - who single-handedly transformed the fortunes of their clubs. In Premiership terms, Blowers is one of the greats.

And he will continue to be great for Northampton for another year or so, despite reports this week suggesting that Graham Henry, recently confirmed as the All Blacks' head coach in the aftermath of New Zealand's latest failure to secure the world title, was whispering sweet nothings in Blowers's ear with a view to restoring him to the silver-ferned back row.

"Auckland is home, and I'll go back there one day," Blowers said this week. "But I love the people at Northampton, and I love the club. I have agreed to play another season here, and I will do so."

He is a man of so few words, it is safe to describe him as a man of all of them. Rather like the internationally celebrated Michael Jones, another Aucklander of Samoan descent and a colleague at National Provincial Championship, Super 12 and Test level, he talks with a quiet dignity that reinforces the sense of an honest sportsman at peace with himself and his talent while failing to account for the extreme ferocity with which he plays this least forgiving of games. He is unnervingly nice. You can almost hear his opponents saying: "If we have to be smashed into the middle of next week, we'd like to be smashed by Blowers. At least there'd be some integrity about it."

Tomorrow, the 29-year-old forward will spearhead Northampton's challenge at Wasps, a Premiership match that signals what might be called the "beginning of the business end" of this season's domestic campaign. "Four games left," said Blowers. "Four games that have a completely different flavour to any we've played since September, because they will define our year." And Blowers wants it defined in the right way. Any kind of result this weekend, and another against Bath in a fortnight, will effectively guarantee the Midlanders a play-off place and, by extension, a shot at the silver pot.

This would be no small thing; not simply because Northampton, for all their tradition and enthusiasm and ambition, have won only one trophy in their history - the Heineken Cup in 2000, an out-of-the-blue success to end them all - but also because Wayne Smith, their coach, is nearing the end of his tenure.

Smith is among the most influential coaches of his generation - for starters, he did England a mighty favour by talking a disenchanted Paul Grayson into prolonging his playing career - and among the most popular, too. Yet he has nothing tangible to show for his efforts; just the soul-destroying memories of cup final humiliations by London Irish and Gloucester, and the equally frustrating, if less painful, recollection of his team's deceptive flattery at European level.

Like Blowers, Smith always intended to return to his native New Zealand; unlike Blowers, he is returning now, having been summoned by Henry to join a high-powered think tank at the top end of the All Black operation. Blowers understands his countryman's decision to leave - given time, he says, the combination of Henry, Smith and Steve Hansen will restore New Zealand rugby to something resembling global supremacy - and sees the Premiership run-in as an ideal opportunity to send him on his way with a fair wind at his back.

"It is not so much a case of wanting to win a trophy for Wayne, as of this group of players wanting to achieve something that reflects the progress we feel we've made during his stay here," Blowers explained. "Realistically, there is one play-off place available, and it's between ourselves and Gloucester. We do not have an easy month ahead of us, but neither do they. Now the Six Nations is over and the international players are back with their clubs, there are no outside issues to concern either of us. We're six points ahead of them, so it's up to us to get it right from here on in."

Getting it right Blowers-style is about three things: intensity, discipline and desire. Northampton did not win medals in any of those departments when they played Wasps in last season's Premiership semi-final, but then, Blowers was as bewildered as any of his colleagues by the peculiarity of that occasion. It was, he readily admits, an odd affair. The Saints played poorly but were beaten only 19-12, a clear indication that the eventual champions were not much better.

"The play-off system was new, and I guess it was pretty bad luck for those who introduced it that Gloucester won the regular season by 15 points," he recalled. "I remember us thinking after the last game that we'd finished fourth, and were out of the running. We were genuinely surprised to discover that we'd made the semi-final.

"There was certainly a strange atmosphere about that game at Wasps - it was flat and uninspiring somehow, a non-event. This time, the mindset is very different. The league itself has moved up a level, all the clubs understand the format and more people seem more comfortable with it. I think you'll see a much more competitive finale to the season than you did last time."

Blowers also believes that poor old England - the champions of the world one minute, and Six Nations also-rans the next - will see a more competitive All Blacks side when they travel south this summer for Tests in Dunedin and Auckland. "Those Tests will be huge for the All Blacks, so England can expect two tough days at the office," he said. "I worked with Henry at Auckland for several seasons and he could be a pretty challenging character. I guess the guys on the Lions tour in 2001 found the same thing. But I get the sense that he's changed for the good, that his approach to management has softened. By bringing in Wayne, and Hansen too, he's surrounded himself with some genuine talent. It seems to me that the All Blacks are throwing everything at this."

Might that "everything" come to include Blowers, who will be in the early weeks of his 31st year when his Northampton contract expires? The thought has clearly occurred to Henry, who must, like every other New Zealander outside the coaching team who presided over the World Cup failure last November, wonder whether a back row featuring the irrepressible Aucklander would have spared the country another collective donning of the widow's weeds. It is not a notion Blowers is willing to entertain.

"In my experience," he said, "successful rugby is about continuity. The good things come slowly, as a result of consistency and careful development. Nothing worthwhile happens overnight, while those things constructed over a period of time tend to last. Unless a coach or a player is really not up to it, the trick is to stick with him. To my mind, the All Blacks must ensure that the outstanding young players who took them to the semi-final of the 2003 World Cup are still there in 2007."

As job applications go, it was one of the worst on record. There again, Blowers already has a job for life, should he want it. Ask anyone who lives in Northampton.

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