Varsity: Part Two - an interview with Head Coach Martyn Fowler
Martyn Fowler is synonymous with rugby in Cardiff: from humble beginnings coaching his son's under-eights team in Splott, to stints with Bedwas and Merthyr in the Welsh Premiership. His hard work and dedication to the game has been repaid, as he will next season be holding the reins at both Cardiff University and his beloved Cardiff RFC, where he is soon to be unveiled as Director of Rugby. I caught up with the man himself as he took a rare break from masterminding the university's tilt at the Varsity, which is to be held at the Millennium Stadium on Wednesday. Such is Fowler's passion for rebuilding the game in the capital city, I left the interview genuinely excited for the future of Cardiff rugby. With all that's happened in the last few months, how often has anyone been able to say that?
Fowler takes a pragmatic view of the final game of the season, contested between Swansea and Cardiff. Despite his heavy involvement in getting the match moved to the Millennium Stadium -and his unmistakable enthusiasm for the event- he still feels that, unfairly, whatever occurs during this one-off game overshadows his side's efforts throughout the regular season.
"Irrespective of what you do all year, you always seem to be judged on one game," he says. "I don't like that, personally. We've had a phenomenal year in the league - we've beaten Swansea twice - and arguably have one of the best sides we've had in the six years I've been here. On our day, and I say this with the greatest humility, I honestly believe that this year we are the best Welsh university."
Fowler states that the statistics obviously back up this last assertion, and while some university sides occasionally field weakened sides, that certainly hasn't been the case this season. This applies to the UWIC side Cardiff University took on and beat in Cyncoed, of whom Fowler said "they didn't look in the game at all".
"If we can take that type of attitude into the Varsity, we should have a good shout," he reasons. "The problem with the Varsity is that Cardiff are the perennial underdogs, and people need to understand this."
Fowler gives an example as to why this is the case. There was a request from Cardiff's PR office for Swansea players' details (such as names, positions, courses, etc). The Cardiff coaching staff were quite alarmed to see that some of the Swansea players who will be wearing green on Wednesday are quite tenuously linked to the university by means of a Higher National Diploma (HND) in such subjects as 'Sport'. Well, as alarmed as one could be, having experienced the same ruse year on year by Swansea.
"Effectively, you can recruit a team if you have the ability to choose players with HNDs," says Fowler. What with Cardiff's rivals' tendency to select players for the Varsity that haven't played for the university all season, he likens the match to the FA Cup Final. "I would prefer this one-off game to be played on level terms, if I'm honest. That might sound like sour grapes, but we've insisted that our players go through the BUCS [British Universities and Colleges Sport] route, so they've got to earn the right to put that Varsity shirt on. Unfortunately, I don't think that Swansea adopt the same attitude."
"We're happy for everybody to know our team. Our team is our team. It's been our team, on the whole, throughout the season. Their team is always shrouded in secrecy until kick-off, or until you see it on that big screen when you turn up at the stadium."
Having interviewed Fowler on more than one occasion over the last few years, I've seen an obvious affection and loyalty in him for his players that isn't always the case at some rugby clubs. It would explain why he says the following about professional players being parachuted in for the Varsity: "Morally, you've got to ask questions of the Swansea coach. I just couldn't do that to a student who had played for us week in, week out. I couldn't do it. Some things are more important than the Varsity match."
Fowler is pleased that the rugby programme he is overseeing at Cardiff University is bearing fruit. He reels off information about each individual member of the squad without hesitation, most of whom are playing in the Welsh Premiership. (Those who aren't, such as the hulking second row medical student Nic Huntley, are unable to do so because of the heavy workload their courses put on them).
Fowler's credo is that "it's all about getting the best players on the park," which would explain why he's moved Arthur Ellis (as interviewed in my previous blog) from hooker to openside flanker. "Arthur's a superbly talented footballer," he says. "So we're going to take a punt - a very calculated punt."
Cardiff fans disappointed by the last two years' showings at the Varsity will be pleased to hear that the Cardiff head coach is optimistic about his team's chances tomorrow: "There's a nice balance in the side this year, with plenty of experience. I will say -not to put the curse on us- I fancy our chances this year. I really do."
Much of Cardiff's success this season has hinged on the performance of their pack, which pleases Fowler hugely. "Our scrum is really dominant at the moment," come the words that every coach desperately wishes he could say. Besides props such as Jake Cooper-Woolley, Geoff Lewin and Ross Grimstone coming into their third- or fourth-year cycles with the club, there is a 19-year-old Fresher from the Rhondda who has greatly impressed the coach.
Bradley Thyer is a former Wales Under-18's tighthead prop who will be switching to loosehead for the Varsity in his debut season with Cardiff University. It will be an incredible achievement for the Ferndale boy who, along with hooker Grimstone, is viewed by his coach as one of the "shining lights" of the team this season.
Now that Cardiff University's Summer Ball has been cancelled due to record losses, the Varsity is without doubt the biggest event of the Students' Union's calendar. Fowler credits the Union for their hard work and willingness to take risks, adding that he has been lucky to have been part of a dedicated Varsity team for the last four years. He is now a member of the newly formed Varsity Board, a collaboration between the university and the Union. The results thus far have been excellent.
"The Millennium Stadium, live on TV. It's an absolutely fantastic opportunity to showcase everything that's good about student sport," he says proudly.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
Among the many players Fowler has coached that have achieved great things in the game, there are two class acts that were allowed to slip the Welsh international net entirely. One is Ben Morgan, the number eight whose rapid rise from anonymity to subject of a tug-of-war between Wales and his native England saw him prevaricate, before choosing the Red Rose. A wise choice, perhaps, considering he was a revelation in white during the Six Nations.
"Ben's almost like an adopted son," beams Fowler, who coached Morgan at Merthyr RFC. "I've got a real fondness for him. No matter what Ben does, he'll always be Ben. If he ended up going on three Lions tours, he would still be the same person."
Fowler has witnessed the pitfalls of being a professional rugby player. "There's always a danger with young men that they get what I call 'New Pro Syndrome,'" he believes. "They tend to lose their way for a couple of years. That will never happen with Ben. He's got great family values; I know the family really well. Those values translate to everything he does off the field."
How exactly a young man from Gloucestershire ended up in Merthyr Tydfil is a tale worth recounting. "I was told about this kid playing on the wing for Cinderford 2nds," recalls Fowler, who at the time had just been given the head job at Merthyr. "I had a budget of around £75,000, so we decided to use that money really wisely and look for something the club hadn't had before."
Wales's Division 1 East is a notoriously attritional, forward-orientated league, so Fowler decided that the only chance Merthyr had of winning it was to look for big men who could also play the ball: "We went up to Cinderford, and there was this huge, Jonah Lomu-esque figure -though slightly less conditioned, I will concede- playing on the left wing, and it was Ben."
"He was as quick as any winger I'd ever seen over the first 30 metres, and he had a lovely soft touch. I wanted to let their coach Mark Cornwall [now, ironically, part of the same Gloucester Rugby set-up Ben Morgan will be part of next season] know first that that I intended to speak to him. He said: 'You crack on: he's lazy, he's hopeless...'"
Fowler immediately threw his new signing into the Welsh 7s circuit, where he proved to be a revelation. In his first season at Merthyr, Morgan was "unstoppable", according to his old coach. While the club ended up finishing second in the league, Fowler firmly believes that had Morgan not been injured in the final month, it is likely they would have won it.
"Ben and his dad Steve fully embraced the Merthyr set-up: they were ever-present there, staying overnight, drinking with the boys. He's a lovely, lovely lad."
The other player I'm referring to is centre Matt Hopper. Hopper was Fowler's Varsity captain in 2007 and, in light of some of his terrific performances for the Harlequins and subsequently the England Saxons, I am curious as to how the powers-that-be let him get away from Wales. Sky Sports and Sunday Times pundit Stuart Barnes has been particularly vocal in proclaiming Hopper the solution to England's midfield problems.
"While he was at university, you could see the talent," Fowler remembers. "I tried to push Matt through the Cardiff Blues region but they didn't even want to look at him. Sometimes you can tell what another coach thinks. Whether they felt the need to pay credence to my opinion is another question. You tend to know good rugby players. Matt's inclusion in the Harlequins and Saxons set-up vindicated my opinion, so I think it was more their loss than Matt's."
Fowler still watches the progress of both Morgan and Hopper, but chances are there might be more than a few players in this university squad who could move on to equally higher ground.
THE COACHING JOURNEY
"When my son turned eight, he wanted to play rugby because my brothers and myself all played," says Fowler. "We're a very big rugby family. My dad played rugby, we just loved the game. I injured my back fairly young so I stopped playing, and dipped in and out of the game while I could, because I had to work full-time in the family business."
Aaron, his son, was inspired by watching his father and uncles play rugby and wanted to be a part of that environment immediately. "I was more than happy just to sit there and watch, enjoying the rugby," he says. "But week by week you end up getting more engaged. So I ended up coaching Aaron and the side from under-8 to under-16; then from the Youth years, watching and coaching that team was incredible."
'Incredible' is an apt description, because the team travelled all over Britain, playing various clubs and academies, winning every single game. Some 15 boys from that Youth side went on to be capped at Schools level. Fowler puts this success down to one major factor, which has served him well - be it from coaching an Under-8s side in Splott, to the new role he will take up next season as Cardiff RFC Director of Rugby.
"If you have a good, fun environment, whether it be pro, semi-pro or amateur," believes Fowler, "people are going to want to come and play. You could be paying someone a hundred grand a year, but if the environment's wrong, they're not going to perform."
As Aaron grew older and prepared to go to university (he would go on to successfully captain Cardiff in Varsity '09), Fowler debated whether to carry on coaching. Then he got a phone call from Justin Burnell, then Academy Director of the Cardiff Blues, asking him to coach their U20s side. Under Fowler, the team won the Reebok Championship; a coach's star was on the rise, and he got offered the Head of Rugby job he still holds at Cardiff University.
"Everybody wants to be your friend when you're successful," Fowler says. "But, to date, the biggest achievement for me is turning Cardiff University from a very social side to one of the best university clubs in Wales, if not the UK."
When he first arrived at the university, Fowler struggled to field a fully competitive first XV, while the gulf between that side and the seconds was vast. As the city of Cardiff improves in all aspects, the rugby talent attracted to the university is steadily increasing. If anything, there are now too many players competing for too few teams.
"We've got a number eight coming from the Harlequins Academy next year," says Fowler, who already has one eye on next season. "We've also got Steffan Jones, a big winger who has been playing for the Wales 7s. The talent is really coming through now."
Here is where things get exciting. "In the next month we will be looking to announce a player development link between Cardiff University and Cardiff RFC," reveals Fowler. "When that's up and running, we'll be able to look at reintroducing Cardiff Youth, so our Freshmen will go and play for them. All our better players will play for the first team. If they're not selected for the firsts, we'll reintroduce Cardiff Rags [the club's second team], so there will be a player pathway all the way through."
Any old school Cardiff fans will be delighted with Fowler's ambitions - not surprising, given he is one of them.
"The great thing is that Cardiff University and Cardiff RFC are two institutions synonymous with excellence," he says. It means there will be a means of recruitment and a ready-made pathway through which players can progress. The close proximity of the university and the Arms Park club make it all the more logical. "I'm a Cardiff boy. To coach at the university and at Cardiff RFC is very humbling."
When I suggest that he is theoretically only one step away from a job within the regional set-up, he makes no bones about it being an aspiration of his.
"It's funny, I spoke to [Blues coach] Justin Burnell about this the other day. He spoke to me about the interest surrounding the Cardiff RFC position. You've got a lot of players retiring now, who think they've got the right to go to the top level of the game straight away. While I'm sure they have in some respects, such as skills coaching, I'm a firm believer that, in all walks of life, you've got serve an apprenticeship."
"I believe I've done that. You tend to learn from the hard lessons very quickly. If it's too easy, too quick, you don't get the opportunity to learn from those lessons. If you look at Justin Burnell, he stopped playing and went from coaching Llantwit Fardre to Pontypridd. Justin did it the hard way, as did [fellow Blues coach] Gareth Baber."
Fowler also admires former Wales and Lions prop Dai Young, a past Blues coach now at London Wasps. "A lot of people don't know that he did a lot of coaching at Abercynon before he took the Blues on."
Fowler's primary aim next season is to keep the university in the Premier A league. From a Cardiff RFC perspective, he acknowledges that, without disrespecting the coaches, finishing ninth in this year's league is not good enough.
"For them not to be in the top three or four every year is absolutely criminal, so I'm looking to lean on the university, the Blues and all the rugby clubs in and around the city to make Cardiff great again."