Dowd the vital new cog in mean machine

Wasps welcome an All Blacks legend while Tykes look to start making a name for themselves
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The Independent Online

Even allowing for the famed omerta of the front-row union, Luke Harbut should have a tale or two to tell after today's Zurich Premiership match at Loftus Road. Harbut, with but a handful of starts and bit-part appearances for Saracens behind him, is to lock horns with Craig Dowd, New Zealand's most-capped prop. Welcome to the new season, Luke.

The news gets worse for Harbut, an Under-21 international whose selection is the result of a hand injury suffered by Saracens' England prop, David Flatman. Dowd, who played his 60th and last All Blacks Test in the 2000 Tri-Nations, has been waiting three months for this day. "There's really nothing like playing," the Aucklander said last week after completing yet another of the training sessions which have filled his time between tearing off a Barbarians jersey at Twickenham back in May and taking his bow for Wasps.

The assembled company nodded sagely, but it is doubtful we grasped the full meaning. Now 31, Dowd has scaled the heights of the world game. His All Blacks Test debut was in the winning 1993 series against Gavin Hastings' Lions. In 1995, he was part of the New Zealand team who could, and probably should, have won the World Cup in South Africa.

The following year, the All Blacks pack remained unchanged throughout a Test programme which included a first series win on South African soil. The eight names have passed into New Zealand legend and are worth recalling – Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Ian Jones, Robin Brooke, Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld, Zinzan Brooke. What a team.

Throw in a couple of Super 12 titles and four provincial championships with Auckland, under the coaching of Graham Henry, and you begin to get the picture. Indeed, some may doubt Dowd's motivation, notwithstanding the reputed £250,000 over two years that prompted him to uproot his young family across the world to London. The scent of battle has seen to that. Dowd wants Wasps to succeed; it's the only way he knows.

"There's no regrets about leaving New Zealand," he said. "I'd done everything I wanted to do, bar winning a World Cup. I met a lot of English guys while I was with the Barbarians, and laid my cards on the table. I had a few offers, but after meeting Nigel [Melville, the Wasps director of rugby], no one else compared. Just to come over here and play is something I wouldn't have got involved with. The biggest lure is to play with contenders, not also-rans."

Wasps were runners-up in the Premiership last season, putting them way ahead in the "contenders" stakes of the rumoured counter-bidders for Dowd's services, Edinburgh and Leeds. If Wasps did suffer by comparison, it was only with Leicester and Stade Français – the latter knocked them out of the Heineken Cup. Melville examined the respective front rows and found his side came up short.

Dowd possesses the priceless knack of being equally proficient on both sides of the scrum, and plays today at tight-head, although his finest days with New Zealand were in the No 1 jersey alongside Fitzpatrick and Brown, together for a remarkable 35 Tests. "I look at myself now as the new boy," Dowd said. "I have to prove my worth on the field, and help the younger guys coming through."

This is Melville's sixth season in charge of Wasps, with a record of success made all the more impressive by the changing circumstances his squad have endured away from the field of play. The demerger of Loftus Road plc during the summer has brought them, with some relief, to a new training base in Acton, west London. Wasps are now, according to Melville, "masters of our own destiny". His squad comprises 27 Englishmen, a Scot [Kenny Logan], a Samoan [Trevor Leota] and Dowd.

England's current scrummaging coach, Phil Keith-Roach, has had close ties with Wasps over the years. He has nothing but praise for the new arrival. "Dowd's a good man," Keith-Roach said. "He immediately gives Wasps a bit of depth, and a bit of competition for places. Players pay lip service to that, but the truth is that they like the safety of knowing they're in the team. Darren Molloy and Will Green are both good props, but having Dowd around will make them better."

Keith-Roach met Dowd when the All Blacks toured here in 1997. The coach was intrigued by the sledge-like scrum machine the New Zealanders had brought with them. Dowd passed on the name of the manufacturer, Wasps built one for themselves, and now most of the Premiership clubs have one.

But there is only one Craig Dowd, as Saracens, and in particular young Luke Harbut, are about to find out.

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