Lynn Howells: Welsh coach who’s pitching for a Romanian rugby resurrection
Former Wales assistant has the practicality and clarity to guide Romania through the World Cup
Romania’s Welsh head coach Lynn Howells looks on prior to their Pool D openingmatch against France at the Olympic Stadium. Photograph: Franck Fife/AFP/Gerry Images
Lynn Howells espouses a practical rugby intelligence that marks him as an excellent coach, and the clarity of purpose and understanding of the professional structures needed to underpin the sport and help guide Romania not just through this World Cup but to the point when the Six Nations Championship might become seven.
History acknowledges how good Romanian rugby was in the 1970s and 1980s, with victories over France, Wales and Scotland, but that may as well have been a century ago. The fall of communism and the advent of professionalism in rugby left Romania in a financial vapour trail coupled with a sharp fall-off in playing numbers.
When Howells took over initially as director of rugby three years ago before subsuming the position as head coach, there were 14 teams in Romania’s elite domestic league. Now there are eight, the talent more condensed, but as they are privately owned, clubs’ priorities don’t also marry with the national interest.
The Welshman explains: “The biggest problem in Romania is the clubs are privately owned and if they have a problem in a position, rather than try and develop a youngster to come though and play in that position, they will just go abroad and fetch a player. There is a big influence in foreign players from the [Pacific] Islands: Tonga and Fiji, and Namibia as well.
“For players to get anywhere near the level they need to be [to play international rugby] they have to leave Romania. All the forwards that played against France, apart from one, play in France.
“The only back that we have that plays overseas is [Catalin] Fercu, the fullback, and he is at Saracens. Apart from that the players [backs] are not good enough to go. That’s the problem. The forwards are certainly good enough.
“We are in the process of sending a nine and 10 to Canterbury in New Zealand for more than a couple of months. Hopefully that will start to benefit us for the short term but the long term has to come from the centres of excellence that have been set up.
“They [the Romanian rugby Federation] have started to identify the fact that they need to put in place a development programme. There is none, but they have now set up four centres of excellence and this will make for a huge improvement in the future. Short-term we just have to get through it.
“Once they start to develop positions that are weak in terms of players we will see a big difference. The forwards are able to compete with most forwards. It is just the game awareness that needs to be worked on.”
Howells, an assistant coach with Wales at the 1999 World Cup and who held the head coaches position at Ponytpridd, Cardiff, Celtic Warriors, Leonessa, Edinburgh and Doncaster Knights, paused briefly when asked to contextualise the standard of rugby in Romania’s elite domestic division.
“I would say in Wales it is probably the Premiership clubs, Pontypridd, that kind of level.”
Nine of the Romania team that face Ireland at Wembley on Sunday are trying to bridge a gap between an All Ireland League club and facing a side that was ranked two in the world a couple of months ago. That’s the stark nature of the remit.
“Look at it this way, of the entire squad, there was nobody in it who before the game at the Olympic Stadium had played in front of a crowd of more than 20,000. Now we go to Wembley, where there are 90,000 [expected]. It is another experience again. “
The Welshman accepts that he must straddle short and long-term goals, one of which would be to resurrect Romanian rugby to the point where they could make a genuine case to the Six Nations Committee.
He was asked for a timeframe. “We’re probably four or five years [away]. There are a group of youngsters coming through now; three that I purposely put in the squad to give them the experience.
“There are probably another eight or nine, and I say youngsters because they are backs; the young forwards, we can find them. With the backs I think we could end up in three or four years with a quality that would be able to compete at that level.”
So what would represent a satisfactory World Cup? He continued: “The first two games are about a performance, just going on the field and showing that we can perform. The ideal outcome would be that we could win two games. If we win two games, we go to the 2019 World Cup and don’t have to qualify.
“In those circumstances you have the four years to develop those youngsters, play them in internationals and not worry about qualifying. The lower end of the goal set would be to win one. If I were looking at the ideal way to progress Romanian rugby it would be to qualify straight from this World Cup to the next.”
A lofty ambition but one that would definitely benefit northern hemisphere rugby. Romania deserve the support of their European neighbours.