Throw a British and Irish Lions party in any far-flung corner of the world and two things are guaranteed: the river of beer will run dry long before kicking-out time – no one who participated in the celebrated drinkathon in Johannesburg at the end of the great feel-good tour of Springbok country in 1997 ever forgot it, once they found a way of remembering it – and the talk will eventually turn to half-backs of the Welsh variety. Morgan and Watkins, John and Bennett, Edwards and Williams, Holmes and Howley –when it comes to hero worship, Nos 9 and 10 have the field to themselves.
If the No 8 contingent feel a little hard done by, who can blame them? Welshmen have filled this position in precisely 50 per cent of the 66 Lions Tests played in the post-war era, from Roy John of Neath in 1950 to Ryan Jones of the Neath-Swansea Ospreys, via Russell Robins, John Faull, Mervyn Davies – crikey, what a player – Quinnell the elder, Quinnell the younger and Michael Owen, who featured in the tradition-busting and (let us pray) never-to-be-repeated "home" international against Argentina before the last trek in 2005. The likelihood must be that the Principality will take ownership of the shirt again in South Africa next summer. Jones is the man in possession, and as he also happens to be captain of his country, there must be a chance that he will match Davies's feat by performing the role on consecutive tours. There again, Andy Powell might have something to say on the matter. Powell has already elbowed Jones to one side at Wales level – during the autumn Test series, the captain found himself operating from the blind-side flank – and if he handles the second half of the season as well as he negotiated the first, the Lions selectors will have a delicate decision to make.
Powell first caught the eye as a teenager, playing in the middle of a beautifully balanced and highly effective Newport loose unit alongside Peter Buxton and Jason Forster. That was the best part of a decade ago. It was not until last month, not long after turning 27, that he broke into international rugby, making his debut against the Springboks and earning himself the man-of-the-match accolade with a barnstorming display of aggressive running from the base of the scrum. It has been onwards and upwards ever since, with various sages – his Test coach Warren Gatland, his club coach David Young – routinely describing him as "world class". So where did it all go right?
"I always believed I could make it with Wales if I could just stay fit, and I've stayed fit," replied Powell, a potential match-winner for Cardiff Blues in this afternoon's important Heineken Cup match against Biarritz down there on the French-Spanish border. It was a reasonable response, so far as it went. But while Powell has indeed suffered for his ball-carrying art – reconstructive surgery on both shoulders is a heavy price to pay for belated success in any sportsman's book – there is far more to his story than a courageous battle against orthopaedic calamity.
Born in Brecon and a product of Llandovery College, he revelled in his young-buck days at Newport. To this day he holds the scavenging Forster and the mauling Buxton in the highest regard – "I'm playing with some quality people now, both at the Blues and with Wales, but when I look back on those times with Jason and Peter, I realise how much I learnt in their company" – and when he talks of his first employer at Rodney Parade, the former Springbok coach Ian McIntosh, he does so with reverence. "I owe him so much," he acknowledged. "He always had something positive to say; there was always something I could take from a conversation that made me feel better about my rugby."
Then, McIntosh left, and in Powell's eyes, he took the best of Newport rugby with him. "New people came in and everything changed," he recalled. "Instead of encouraging us to stick to the things we knew we could do well, they took the opposite approach. With Ian gone, I didn't feel there was much to keep me at the club: I just couldn't get along with the coaching team in the same way. So I moved to France and started playing at Beziers. Everyone said I'd gone for the money, but my reasons were anything but financial."
After Beziers, he surfaced at Leicester, of all the hard-bitten, ultra-insular places on planet rugby. Dean Richards, a double Lion who knew a thing or two about No 8 play, was in charge of business at Welford Road and for a while, Powell made decent progress. "I played about five games for the seconds in front of 9,000 people a time – they get fantastic crowds up there, irrespective of who's playing – and scored a whole load of tries. Suddenly, I was on the bench for the first team. And then ... well, to be honest, I just felt I'd had enough. I simply didn't feel like playing any more. All I wanted to do was go home and start working with my dad in his recycling business, as I had when I was 17. Serious rugby was over for me at that point." Even now, he is unsure why he felt the way he did.
What he does know is that his mother picked up the phone, rang McIntosh and asked him to have a word in her son's ear. "He was brilliant," Powell said. "We talked about how things were when I was starting out at Newport, how I'd enjoyed my rugby and how much I might achieve if I could recapture that enthusiasm. I decided to give it another ago, spent some time in Llanelli with the Scarlets and then received an offer from Dai Young to come to the Blues. I've been here four years now, and I don't think I've ever enjoyed life more."
According to Young, who has played a skilful and sensitive hand in bringing the best out of Powell after all this time, the No 8 "does certain things as well as any player in the world". And the other things? "The key thing with Andy," he said, "is to stay positive. He's really knuckled down since he's been here and matured a great deal, but he's still the kind of player who likes to feel he has support around him – who needs the occasional arm round the shoulder, who responds to being told he's doing the right things. He knows there are areas of his game that need improving, and he can spend too much time worrying about those rather than relishing the good bits. I think some of the people around him in the past have emphasised the negatives.
"People say he wouldn't have had his chance here if Xavier Rush [the former All Black No 8 and captain whose influence at the Arms Park has been considerable indeed in recent seasons] hadn't suffered long-term injury problems.
"But that's not right. It has always been my plan to use Xavier and Andy together, because we need all the powerful ball-carriers we can get.
"It hasn't quite happened yet – if Xavier has been fit, Andy hasn't – but when it does, that partnership will be very effective." So the Lions beckon. It takes some doing for a player to put himself squarely in the frame for a British Isles Test series with the reigning world champions on the strength of three international starts, but as those starts were against the three SANZAR countries currently lording it at the top of the official rankings, Powell's claims are built on solid foundations rather than quicksand.
Was he not spooked by his confrontations with Pierre Spies, the freakishly fast Springbok No 8, or Rodney So'oialo, whose recent work with the All Blacks has established him as the world's most accomplished eighth man? "Spooked? Not at all," Powell said. "To be the best, you have to break the best. I enjoyed the contests, I didn't get myself shown up and I ended the series feeling good about myself. The trick now is to build on what I've achieved. This has come late to me, but it's still only a beginning.
"It goes without saying that the Lions would be something special. If you ask me whether I think I can make it, my answer would be yes. Why not? When I look around the international scene in Britain and Ireland, I don't say to myself: 'That bloke there is miles ahead of the rest of us.' It's an open position in my view."
A couple of days before Powell's debut, Gatland said the following: "He has been producing some outstanding performances – performances that would have had people raving if they had been delivered by a foreign player, a Jerry Collins for instance. To switch our captain to the side of the scrum tells you a little of what we think about Andy."
Gatland thinks even more of him now, which may well prove significant over the coming months for an obvious reason: when the Lions forwards arrive in South Africa in June and start working towards the first Test in Durban, the Wales coach will be the man barking the orders. A year ago, Powell was nowhere to be seen. When next year dawns, he will be very much in view.
My Other Life
"I'll do anything that keeps me out of trouble. Golf is my main relaxation, I suppose. I play off nine and I'd like to get that down a little. I'm also thinking through a few ideas about how to spend my life after rugby. Coaching attracts me, as does running a bar in Spain. There again, I might go back to Brecon and get reinvolved with my dad's recycling business. Recycling is a big thing in today's world, and it will only get bigger. In that sense, it's a good thing to have as an option."
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