Under Red, Blue & Black

By Ian Tabor | 24/05/2013

Cardiff Directory of Rugby Martyn Fowler has been in conversation with therugbycity.

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t was a little over a year ago that I last interview MArtyn Fowler, Cardiff’s busiest rugby coach.

Back then he was in bullish mood, masterminding what would prove to be a convincing Varsity victory at the Millennium Stadium against arch-rivals Swansea University, whilst simultaneously preparing himself for a directorship role with Cardiff RFC in the Welsh Premiership.

One year on, and it is Swansea’s turn for revenge, winning the Varsity 21-13. Cardiff RFC –the Blue & Blacks– have finished one league position higher than they did before Fowler took the wheel, steering a callow side to eighth. Fowler, for what it’s worth, still maintains the same fighting spirit; a man who’s realised the job is very much only half done.

He describes his first year in charge at Cardiff Arms Park as “an incredible and humbling experience”. The supporters, and those who run the club, see Cardiff RFC as something more than a ‘brand’, given its rich history as one of the world’s most famous clubs. “It’s been a huge learning curve – one that has galvanised my resolve to deliver on promises made on my appointment. Without doubt, it’s been a case of controlling the uncontrollables. We’ve used 84 players this year: 50% more than our nearest rivals.”

To put this into context, the Blue & Blacks have used fifteen different half-backs (the positions most responsible for game management), which means continuity has been an issue. However, Fowler points to the relentless support from those running the club (“they’ve been brilliant”) as a convincing sign that the Premiership side can achieve a much higher finish next season.

What with the juggling act –overseeing multiple matches and numerous training sessions between two teams, not to mention the hours at the drawing board– doesn’t it ever feel like fighting a war on two fronts? On the contrary, Fowler calls it a “symbiotic relationship”, in the sense that both teams act as an attractive recruitment tool for the other.

Playing against some of the strongest university teams in England enables Fowler to cast his gaze further afield than the average Premiership coach. “One of the benefits of travelling up and down the country is the identification of Welsh students studying outside the country,” he says. “It offers them the provision of a development pathway on return to their native land. My goal is not to lose players from the Welsh game, and in particular Cardiff RFC.”

The received portrait of the university sports coach, as perpetuated by Hollywood, is that of a gnarled dinosaur who regards academia as an embuggerance to ‘the Programme’. Whilst he is inextricably linked to the sporting side of things at Wales’s most prestigious educational establishment, it turns out that Fowler is equally passionate about everything else the university has to offer.

Fowler knows the life of a uni student in the Welsh capital better than most parents, having seen two of his children take their first steps into higher education at Cardiff University. His son Aaron, a former Varsity captain (who last season joined his father at the Arms Park), studied law, while daughter Alana will graduate with a psychology degree this year.

“There is without doubt positive affirmation that despite these times of austerity, a degree from Cardiff University can foster an ability to succeed in today’s society,” says Fowler. “Both Aaron and Alana enjoyed incredible support from their lecturers and tutors, and have nothing but positive comments from their learning experiences at Cardiff. I only need to look at what some of my former players have gone on to achieve to reinforce that message.”

Fowler is adamant that the correct balance of work and play at university is vital to fully enjoying the experience. “Aaron and Alana both made the most of the student nightclub on sports nights, socialising with teammates and classmates, developing friendships for life,” he says. “Aaron never missed a training session despite being fully immersed in the rest of university life.”

Whether that’s because Dad was coach is irrelevant to Fowler: “In my experience, nothing helps the integration process for a young man or woman into the university environment more than joining a club or a society. They immediately become part of a family. They have an away-from-home support system, friends to lean on when struggling, friends to laugh with when times are good; a much needed release from the rigours of academic study.”

“University is a special place,” he reflects. “Many of the friends you meet there remain friends for life, become business colleagues, partners, husbands and wives.” Indeed, Aaron Fowler will be marrying his fiancée in 2015, having both met on the LPC course at Cardiff Law School.

He is a tough man –and by the sounds of it, an even tougher coach– but those who have played for Fowler don’t seem to have forgotten the positive effect he had on them. This would explain why he gets invited to christenings and weddings of Cardiff alumni; something which he takes great pride in. The feeling, he admits, is reciprocated because the students have inspired him to further his learning: he is currently studying for a Master’s degree, with an eye on “a possible venture into lecturing”.

He holds high hopes for the youngest Fowler child, Dayna, a talented vocalist who is seeking a place at the university’s School of Music – one of the UK’s top music departments. “Cardiff University has a huge influence on my life,” says a proud Fowler. “It’s part of my family. It’s provided a learning and life experience for my children and for me as an employee, and long may that continue.”

Fowler’s priority for the 2013/14 season for the Blue & Blacks has, unsurprisingly, been recruitment. The rookies who have been blooded –and occasionally bashed– in the Welsh Premiership will be reinforced by experienced heads such as fly-half Ceiron Thomas (Scarlets, Leeds Carnegie), openside flanker Johnathan Edwards (Scarlets, Wales Sevens) and the lightning Ebbw Vale winger Polo Uhi (a colourful Tongan who can currently be seen learning Welsh on S4C’s cariad@iaith programme).

That said, Fowler is also looking to bolster the University team with some impressive talent for the next academic year. The calibre of elite rugby-playing academics applying to Cardiff University is growing year on year, and Fowler is clearly excited by the influx of talent. “I have received resumés from as far as the Bay of Plenty in New Zealand, with a 20-stone, 6’4” prop applying to study Bioscience. We’ve also had a Welsh international U18 outside half applying to study Law here.”

The Arms Park partnership, the burgeoning profile of the Welsh Varsity match (which attracted a record 20,000 spectators to the Millennium Stadium last month) and the ongoing success of Cardiff University Rugby Club are key indicators in bringing high-quality academic athletes to the city. The man at the heart of all this couldn’t be happier with the way rugby in Cardiff is headed.

It appears ‘the Programme’ is alive and well.

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