Andy Powell: Nowhere to hide, no hard shoulder to cry on
Powell has moved on from the infamous golf-buggy incident and is flying at Wasps.
Sunday 12 December 2010
Andy Powell knew he would be treading the green, green grass of home this afternoon, and though the venue for Wasps' Heineken Cup match has changed from Newport Gwent Dragons' Rodney Parade to the Cardiff City Stadium, the sentiment is the same.
The much-travelled Welsh No 8 is happy to visit when playing for his London employers, or when he is needed by his country, and one day he will settle down in his Brecon birthplace. Otherwise there is no going back. "I'll start talking with Wasps over Christmas," says Powell. "I'd like to see out my rugby-playing career here."
Knowing the history of this 29-year-old Wasp who trains in Acton, plays in High Wycombe and lives in Westminster, where a taxi driver might think Rodney Parade is the Dragons' star player, he is, it is fair to say, very Welsh. He is, by turns, wistful, warm, impulsive, barmy. Twp, they'd say, in Welsh. In London, maybe, lively or lairy.
Just the sort of bloke, in short, who would get "the munchies" in the early hours of a Sunday morning after a win over Scotland, lurch out of the team hotel with a mate and jump in a golf buggy to set off to the nearest petrol station. Which is what Powell did last February, in one of the wackier and most notorious cases of taking and driving away.
Going along a dark country road followed by the hard shoulder of the M4 – at buggy pace, time enough surely to deduce it was a daft idea – he arrived at the garage with South Wales Police's finest for company. Magistrates banned him from driving for 15 months and fined him £1,000. Dropped from the Wales squad, he took it hard and saw out his final days with the Cardiff Blues – though neither side will elaborate in public – in mutual aggravation.
Yet here Powell is, speaking positively of "playing with a smile on my face again" at a club where a legendary No 8, Lawrence Dallaglio, pulls a few strings and slackers are not welcome. Powell himself quotes the word "bouncebackability". He has needed it in spades. His career began with a rush at Newport, in the days before the regional Dragons. In his breakthrough season, 2001-02, Newport finished second in the Welsh-Scottish League. The Rugby Annual for Wales described him as "one of the most promising men on the Welsh scene".
The newspapers went for "the new Scott Quinnell". Powell fidgets and bridles at this, running his fingers through blond hair that is cut sensibly short now but has variously been an aggressive close-crop or a lavish mullet. "That was the journalists," he says. "You're not a Scott Quinnell.I'm Andy Powell, that's the way Iplay. Keep to what you're good at. Everybody's an individual."
He was in an Under-21 age group with Gavin Henson, Ryan Jones and Mike Phillips. Unlike Henson, who was capped almost immediately, Powell got no further than the A team. Newport changed coaches and lost their first eight matches the followingseason. He departed for four months in France with Béziers and five months with Leicester – for his single first-team appearance in December 2003 he shared the bench with Martin Johnson – followed by a few months of no rugby and a stint with Llanelli Scarlets. In 2005 he joined the Blues and suffered two years of injuries.
"Sometimes I sit at night and think about Béziers: 'Bloody hell, what was I doing over there?' But maybe if I hadn't done those things, I wouldn't be here now. I wouldn't have played for the Lions [on their 2009 tour], for the Barbarians, for Wales. I might have finished rugby five years ago."
His rescuer was Warren Gatland, Wales's current head coach, who gave Powell his Test debut, aged 27, in 2008. Despite the buggy incident, and another alcoholic escapade a year earlier, Gatland forgave Powell and he played again this autumn.
Wasps, who beat Glasgow and earned a valuable bonus point in Toulouse in the Heineken Cup, are using Powell in his "favourite position" of No 8. Physically very dynamic, he explodes off scrums and rucks and lets team-mates do the link play. Off the field, he is the go-to man for banter.
"In rugby generally there's a few pranks," he says. "It was awkward after the [buggy] incident, and thinking I'm not going to play for Wales again, you start thinking the wrong things. You let everything come down on your shoulders. I didn't kill anybody and that's the way you've got to look at it, that's the positive side."
At which point he stands up, to more than his 6ft 4in on tiptoes, pulls down his tracksuit bottoms – and removes the ice pack that was soothing a dead leg. Phew.
Rugby loves its boisterous characters. The 1974 Lions have dined out for decades on tales of setting hotels on fire. The 2009 tourists had free rein on nights off, and were regarded as a better, more productive bunch because of it. "Good banter keeps the group tight, that's the way it should be," he says. "I played in some teams where the banter's not so brilliant, and you'd go home at night and think, oh no, another four days of training."
He and his mother are renovating her Victorian house in Breconwith a view to running a bed-and-breakfast. "Built in 1842, it was," he says. "A nice old place with fishing rights running through. I can fly-fish but I prefer a bit of spinning or worming, you can chill out on the bank then. London's nice but the countryside I'm from is nice. I'll go back eventually when I'm settling down." And this brings a broad smile. "That's going to be a while, probably."
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