Australia schooled in the wiles of Howard's way
AS AUSTRALIA prepare for the international against Ireland at Lansdowne Road on Saturday, one of the men plotting their strategy and tactics is forward coach Jake Howard. He brings to that task a very broad canvas of experience and a very thorough knowledge of Irish rugby.
The 51-year-old Howard, a law graduate of Sydney University, won seven caps for Australia at prop forward between 1970 and 1973. As he puts it himself, "it was not an international career that went uninterrupted".
He knew well the frustration and disappointment of being dropped on a few occasions. Having gained the ultimate honour as a player, his contribution in the coaching sphere at different levels has been immense. He is unquestionably one of the people who has lifted Australian rugby to a level where, on a consistent basis, they are a match for the best in the game. They are one of three countries to. win the World Cup.
He is on his third visit to Ireland as a coach to the national team. He was here in 1991 with the World Cup winning side and, back again in 1992 with a touring side. After a brief rest, he was appointed assistant to national coach Greg Smith for a two-year term that runs until next season. He also has had two spells as coach to Dublin club Wanderers - after the 1992 tour and for a period last season before he returned to his home in Brisbane.
Howard is, therefore, in a very good position to make a judgement on the Irish game. He expresses "profound respect and regard for it". He also believes that the game in Australia and in Ireland has many similarities. "We work from roughly the same playing base and, like Ireland, the schools are of crucial importance.
"Schools rugby in Ireland is excellent. When I was here with Wanderers I saw a lot of it and really enjoyed it. I believe, too, that the structure of the schools scene in this country is first class. One has only to look at the results internationally to support that view. Just like in Australia, rugby is a minority sport in Ireland and you share with us the absolute necessity of doing everything possible to keep young players involved in the game after they leave school.
"You cannot afford a fallout and neither can we. But tremendous work has been done in that area in both countries and the structures are being put in place to make sure that every encouragement is being given to young school leavers."
Rugby is very much a way of life in the Howard household. Jake's son Pat is a member of the current Wallabies squad and is on the replacement bench against Ireland. He played in the international against Scotland a fortnight ago and was injured. He is the third generation of his family to play for Australia. Jake's wife Margariete is a daughter of one of the great figures of Australian rugby Cyril Towers. He had an international career that spanned the period from 1927 to 1937.
In touring Ireland, Pat Howard is emulating the achievement of his maternal grandfather. Cyril Towers toured here with the Waratahs in 1927. He won his first cap in that match. It was basically a New South Wales team, as no rugby was played in Queensland between 1919 and 1929 and New South Wales represented Australia.
Towers certainly passed on his love for the game to his daughter. Margariete is a coach of some substance and when here during Jake's tenure with Wanderers helped coach the Old Belvedere under-19 side. "There is no doubt that Pat has been influenced by his mother just as much as by me. Maybe more so," says Howard.
Irish blood runs strongly in the family. "My grandmother was Irish and my other three grandparents were of Irish descent. Fifty per cent of Australians claim to have Irish blood and I would not doubt but they are right. I think that explains the special bonds between the two countries. Certainly, if I have to lose to a country, I would rather it be to Ireland than any other.
He is the only survivor on the current Australian management team from 1991 and his memory of the scare Australia got from Ireland in the quarter-final is sharp. "There is a family atmosphere about Irish rugby and a tremendous passion in it. I know passion is not enough, but it is a vital ingredient in the Irish game and that is recognised by every country. I believe, too, it is in the Australian game. Anyone who takes anything for granted against Ireland is asking for trouble and we will not be doing that in Saturday.
"I have some knowledge of a lot of the players in Ireland. There are a lot of very good players in the country and some really good players in the current Ireland side - and so are several of the players who have been dropped after the Western Samoa match. I know from personal experience the disappointment of being dropped."
He believes that the defeat by Western Samoa "was probably the worst thing that could have happened from Australia's point of view".
"I think it would have been better for us had Ireland won the match. The fact they lost it will make them even more dangerous on Saturday. The loss exposed some flaws and they will be rectified and the determination and spirit will now be even more pronounced. The players will know what is expected from them by the supporters and will surely respond. It will make it very difficult for us."
He does not accept that Australia are now playing a forward-orientated game. "We use the maul effectively, but we have done that before. But there are some very good backs in our squad. Circumstances sometimes dictate tactics."
On professionalism in rugby, Howard holds strong views. "I regret that the game has gone professional the way it has. There is no doubt it has changed aspects of the game that were among its most appealing aspects. There is a price to pay for professionalism and indeed I think it may reflect itself even in 10 years time.
Howard returns to familiar pastures on Saturday. "I am really looking forward to it but then there is something really special about playing in Lansdowne Road and I think every player will tell you that." There are no more welcome visitors than the Australians, but the welcome will be suspended for 80 minutes on Saturday. No one knows that better than Jake Howard.