The former NBA coach who is teaching Connacht ‘the why’

David Howarth is enjoying the less ‘shiny’ world of rugby after life in the NBA

 Dave Howarth is loving life at Connacht and taking the positives from rugby’s three month shutdown. File phtoograph: Inpho

Dave Howarth is loving life at Connacht and taking the positives from rugby’s three month shutdown. File phtoograph: Inpho

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David Howarth was used to coming across huge units of men in his professional life but he still took a deep intake of breath when he first saw Tim Allnut. This was 7am, misty morning, Shannon airport and Howarth was bleary after a flight from California. The Connacht manager approached him with a wide smile, wider shoulders and hand extended (remember that?).

“Tim is a human refrigerator: a bear of a man,” Howarth laughs now in recollection. “This massive paw for a handshake. And he took me to see the Sportsground, to the hotel, for lunch and dinner. From the beginning, I was welcomed with open arms here.”

This was three years ago and it was Howarth’s first trip to Ireland. He was there to finalise what ostensibly looked like an unusual career move, leaving his role as head of strength and conditioning for the Oklahoma Thunder NBA team for a new head of athletic performance post with Connacht rugby.

But then, Howarth’s professional life has been intuitive and unpredictable from the beginning, moving from green-keeper to would-be rugby coach to strength and conditioning coach over two decades which had been defined by a deep immersion in sports science.

Like everyone else in sport, his mind was left reeling by the stark and sudden transformation of the rugby landscape by the Covid-19 pandemic, but Howarth’s irrepressible energy is a calling card and when he reviews the last three months he can see the benefits of the interruption to Connacht’s schedule.

“We went through a philosophical change in this whole lockdown thing which is that there is no such thing as normal any more. We tried to make a real effort to not make stop-gap changes but to introduce lasting and purposeful changes.

David Howarth worked with NBA stars such as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. File photograph: Getty Images
David Howarth worked with NBA stars such as Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant during his time with the Oklahoma City Thunder. File photograph: Getty Images

“So a lot of the moves that have been driven by lockdown are now things we think will drive us into the future. We wouldn’t rerun last year’s programme because you would just get what you got last year. And we are starting to find a new rhythm. There is still an element of pining for things you would have had. We value human connection in sport. And doing it remotely can be hard. But there have been efficiencies built-in.”

Within the Connacht set-up, Howarth’s performance team is composed of Johnny O’Connor, who concentrates on the physical strength and power and Barry O’Brien, whose primary area is conditioning; ensuring players can last through a game, a week, a season.

“I am mainly in charge of monitoring and driving the performance science programme. But we aren’t hierarchical. On game day, I might be running the water or filling the ice tub or turning on the GPS units. We do a third of the travelling roles each. The biggest role we play on game day is to bring energy. We all still secretly want to play a bit.”

After the sheer scale of NBA life, the family-oriented feel of Connacht was a blessing

One of the big talking points in rugby union revolves around the sheer physical size of the players. The body shape of rugby players, irrespective of position, has changed radically over the past two decades. But Howarth rejects the idea that the main ambition of any athletic performance team is to merely enhance the physical bulk and prowess of the player. “I don’t know that bigger is necessarily the aim,” he says.

It’s a conversation they have a lot. If two players meet in a collision, then the odds favour the heavier player in that contact. But you can also be a lesser weight moving faster. This is something Johnny O’Connor and I talk about a lot. I do remember when he was playing hearing the talk about this Irish flanker because he moved with such intent and aggression that he was always going to reach at least parity.

“If you look at Paul Boyle or Jared {Butler] are not the biggest guys. But they rarely get knocked back in collision. The real future is in player management and longevity– when we need to rest and push and adjust. Those are the questions we always ask of ourselves and of the players.”

Howarth’s fascination with this world has an accidental quality about it. He grew up in Canberra and Sydney as a typically rugby, surfing and golf crazy teenager. He worked as a green keeper until his mid twenties but was on an internship in Florida when a friend invited him to a gym where the University of Miami football team trained. This was in the early 2000s, when the Hurricanes were the first ranked team in the country.

Howarth happily admits utter cluelessness as to the scale of college football. “I was thinking, a school team, big deal. To me, at that time, sporting ambition started and ended with playing for the Wallabies.”

The weights sessions he witnessed and participated in were a revelation. In Australia, everyone had been limited to the same few lifts and isolations areas. In Miami, he was shown split squats, clean and jerk: the entire body was accounted for. Sessions were tailored to a specific purpose. That knowledge may seem standard now but at the start of the 2000s, it was not.

When he returned to Australia, he began to study and interned under Dave Boyle, the academy head at the Waratahs. “Dave was my mentor. He set the tone for the players and I saw where the crossover was missing. The energy, his sessions were like a disco. It was incredible.”

He worked in Australian rugby for four years but after a return to the States, he worked with a private company, Sparta Performance Science, where he was approached by the Thunder to head their strength and conditioning programme. By then he had met his wife Danielle, a Floridian and they were in the midst of starting a family. The job was fascinating and never ending.

“At the Thunder, I was the link to the nutrition programme, also. So I would sit there, telling these millionaires how they should eat,” he laughs.

“And sometimes it would be: I don’t want to eat that shit. I don’t care. This is what I wanna eat. I understand what you want to eat. But would you allow me to tell you why you should eat this? And that conversation might take a year and a half. It might never go through. But I never got tired of the ‘why’.

Connacht is still a high performance organisation and a high performance sport. There are not that many differences. It is just how shiny it looks

“There was a guy named Nick Collison, a player who moved from Seattle to OKC. An awesome player and a great fella. One of our rookies was kicking up a stink in the gym one day. And Nick came over and put a hand on his shoulder and said to him: ‘would you do it for $10 million? I am not saying it is going to earn you $10 million. But it might. Isn’t it worth a try?’ And sure enough that kid turned up in the gym each day. Nick was a year older than me and still playing in the league at the time.

“To me, sports science is driven by the ability, if I have any, of knowing the concept of ‘why’ and then conveying that to the guys. Not to be the authority. But to be the guidance and for the players to be the feedback.”

The NBA is an eight billion dollar business entertainment sport and the Thunder franchise is one of its success stories. Howarth’s time there coincided with the Kevin Durant/ Russell Westbrook axis: they were title contenders. So the ‘season’ never stopped.

In his second year, the team played 110 games. Howarth was on all the road trips and spent the summer watching players in work out camps. “You are in that plane, the bus, the car. I was away for 260 days of that year. I didn’t get to see Dani or my daughter at that time – and we had a son on the way. And I remember coming home from some of those road trips and my daughter was just four and she was teaching me how to behave in the house. And don’t get me wrong, OKC never said to me you’ll have this great work life balance. In fact, they said the opposite.”

But three seasons was enough. He saw the Connacht role advertised and a light bulb went off because he had already met Nick Winkelman, the IRFU head of athletic performance. Winkelman was serving on an NBA advisory panel in Chicago. They met and clicked. “His humility and passion struck me and he was incredibly giving with his time.”

He spoke with Danielle and they decided that he should apply for the Connacht job on instinct. Shortly afterwards, Winkelman called him up to ask him if he was serious about the idea of moving from California to College Road.

“He said: if you were to do a successful interview and come to Galway and see the place, it will be raw and it won’t have the shine and bells and whistles of the NBA. But from what I know of you, you will love it. I was thinking: what are you saying about me here?”

Three years on, that has been the case. To begin with, it offered Howarth a return to the sport he loves most. He has thrived under Andy Friend and after the sheer scale of NBA life, the family-oriented feel of Connacht was a blessing.

“Side by side it may seem like a strange move but if you saw the lives you would say, Jeez that makes amazing sense. And Connacht is still a high performance organisation and a high performance sport. There are not that many differences. It is just how shiny it looks.

“But the big thing was: I was home six nights a week. Putting my kids to bed. Reading them stories. They knew who I was. So we love it here. We were just discussing it and about what the future looks like. We seek adventure. It is something we push with the kids. We don’t know what the future will be but this has been a really great part of the adventure and hopefully it keeps going for a little bit.”

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