November 13, 2014

Pat Howard's rugby state of mind

Greg Growden
The Australian team performance head's swift review of the UAE debacle is an example of cricket borrowing ideas from rugby

Pat Howard: provocative, left-field, but known for getting things done © Getty Images

When it emerged this week that Pat Howard had engaged the Indian statistics and consultancy firm Cricket-21 to review the Test team's failed campaign in the UAE, many in the Australian rugby union nodded knowingly.

It was the sort of gambit they became used to during Howard's brief reign as head of the Australian Rugby Union's (ARU) High Performance Unit. When it ended in 2008, his then boss John O'Neill described Howard as the code's "Halley's Comet": Plenty of fizz and spark. Spectacular. Then just as quickly, gone.

Nowadays Howard is among Australian cricket's most influential figures as the board's general manager of team performance. Many who know him remain surprised by his rise to fame, but equally understand why he polarises, and why he makes a difference.

As puzzling for some is how such a traditional football code as rugby union, which is in the grip of the old boys' network, the school tie and the restrictions of amateurism, has been such a trend-setter in providing ideas and programmes for cricket.

Looks can deceive. In spite of its shoddy administration and often backward thinking, the ARU has led the way in embracing the sport sciences and acknowledging the importance of off-field preparation in ensuring the code has achieved the most from limited resources.

Australian rugby began thinking seriously of what was required off the field in the lead-up to its first World Cup triumph in 1991. This even included being the first major sporting body to appoint a full-time media manager to keep the Fleet Streeters at bay, and it has grown from there. A High Performance Unit was instituted well before other sports even comprehended what HPU stood for.

Cricket has since embraced ideas from rugby union, including an undertanding of the importance of strength and conditioning and of the mental side of the game, actively employing those who have been immersed in everything ruck and maul. Gavin Dovey, the current Australian team manager, was formerly the England rugby team's operations manager, where he developed a strong relationship with the coach and 2003 World Cup-winning captain, Martin Johnson.

O'Neill, who was the ARU chief executive for two terms, said his Cricket Australia counterpart James Sutherland repeatedly "picked my brains on what we were doing".

In spite of its shoddy administration and often backward thinking, the ARU has led the way in embracing the sport sciences and acknowledging the importance of off-field preparation

Former Australian rugby team manager Phil Thomson and Australian cricket team manager Steve Bernard were good friends, often "bouncing ideas" off each other. Thomson, a former Federal Police officer, was particularly effective in the area of team discipline.

Player-wise, the links between Australian rugby and Australian cricket are not exactly extensive. Only two Test cricketers have represented Australia in rugby at the highest level. Otto Nothling played in 19 Wallaby Tests, while Johnny Taylor played against the 1922 New Zealand Maoris.

Nonetheless, many notable rugby players have strong cricket connections. Jason Little and Tim Horan were Queensland schoolboy representatives. David Knox was a long-time Sydney first-grade player with Randwick. Mark Ella, a handy medium-pacer, managed the Australian Aboriginal team when it went on its 1988 tour of Great Britain.

The Wallaby most influential on the Australian cricketing sphere has been Howard. As the Australian team's high performance head, he has been provocative, left-field at times, criticised, but ever powerful. As those who know him well say: "He can be a bull at a gate. He gets things done, even if he's not the best listener going around."

Howard during his time as a Wallaby was among the code's most precocious talents. The pedigree is there via his grandfather - one of Australian rugby's most innovative figures, Cyril Towers - the father of the running game and someone who vehemently stood his ground. Howard's mother, Marguerite, is also a trendsetter, standing up to the male element as a coach at numerous Brisbane clubs. Howard's father, Jake, a Wallabies Test prop, spent many years in the coaching ranks, working with numerous Australian teams. Pat's early life was as a "carny", travelling with his parents, who were involved in sideshow alley. Going from one exhibition show to the next country show provided him with a different view of the world.

How he approached rugby and life was on show during his Test debut, against the All Blacks at Carisbrook in Dunedin, an unforgiving ground known worldwide as "the House of Pain".

Not for him the gentle first outing. From the outset the then 19-year-old tried to take all of New Zealand on. When Howard first touched the ball that day, from behind a winning Australian scrum, the assumption was the new No. 10 would boot it downfield for early territorial gain. Instead, Howard opted for a run, making an outlandish dummy to no one in particular. His Australian team-mates looked on aghast, especially as several seconds later he was swamped by several All Black backrowers, including New Zealand's finest, Michael Jones, who came close to putting Howard through a mincer.

Howard's place in the Australian side was never consistent. But his intense involvement in the formation of the ACT Brumbies, his coaching success in Europe, and his "out there" attitude attracted O'Neill to hi, when he was looking for someone to take over the ARU's HPU unit in the lead-up to the 2007 Rugby World Cup.

"Pat's credentials outweighed the negatives because he had played at the highest level," O'Neill said. "He was an innovator - a very smart rugby player. He wasn't the fastest player on the field by any stretch, but he was incredibly confident.

Howard also had a successful career as a pharmacist. He owned pharmacies in Sydney, and like Jeff Miller and Brett Robinson who ran the HPU before him, was astute financially. "You do need someone in that role who can run all the budgets, because coaches left to their own devices will send you broke," O'Neill said. "You require checks and balances.

"Pat Howard had that rigour. Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, including a young family, it was hard for him to continue, especially as he was commuting from his Brisbane home to Sydney each week."

Howard's eight months with the ARU weren't easy, as they coincided with John Connolly's time as Australian coach. Connolly, a rugby dinosaur, did not believe in any of the sports science "mumbo jumbo", and deliberately kept Howard at a distance. Howard worked around Connolly, before being instrumental in the appointment of Robbie Deans.

O'Neill, now involved in a casino business, remains passionate about the importance of the HPU in any major sport, and praises Australian cricket authorities for embracing it. "You have to keep investing in the cattle. Unless you've got the cattle coming through, you're in deep trouble," he said.

"When rugby was amateur, it relied high-performance-wise very much on the Australian Institute of Sport [AIS]. From the late 1980s, a power of work was involved by the ARU in getting pathways and coaching structures in place, but it was still pretty rusty. That was because there was no money in the game. The AIS provided all the science. But the federal government had the view that once you were a professional sport, you were on your own.

"When we won the 1999 [rugby] World Cup, we didn't have a HPU. But we were then becoming more financially stable, and with a World Cup-winning team we had the wherewithal to establish essentially an equivalent of an AIS, but within the ARU's own infrastructure. So we thought being at the forefront of sport science, and being highly innovative, particularly as we have had such a small player base, was a critical point of difference, and a critical competitive advantage to us. With it came the HPU.

"It was not just about player pathways but also coaching pathways, and was unashamedly about the professional game. It was ensuring the pipeline of talent was continuous. Within the HPU function there were doctors, physios, coaches, even referees. Anyone involved in elite programmes was housed in one location. It was all designed to create a national vision."

Howard's vision often outstrips that of others in Australian cricket, as exemplified by the hiring of Cricket-21. It was a decision many "cricket people" may have blanched at, but the sort of lateral thought Sutherland has come to expect.

"I wouldn't suggest he's not trying to understand from the local experts their views on how it might be," Sutherland said, "but I think he's naturally a lateral thinker and he's looking for thoughts from people in different parts of the world. Certainly from the part of the world where they're experts in playing in those conditions and to provide some sort of assessment to see what we can learn from that.

"It's not so much about looking backwards as looking forwards - people might interpret a review as something where we're looking for heads, but all we're doing is looking for ways in which we can get better to be more competitive in that environment because we've got some tough tours in those parts of the world over the next 18 months.

"We've got Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India coming up and we need to be well and truly equipped for that, because I can't see the pitches getting faster or bouncier!"

And if you're wondering why the Wallabies - a professional outfit since 1995 - have been wonky lately, a prime factor is that due to budget constraints, the ARU has dramatically downgraded its HPU. Other sports, Australian cricket included, have cherry-picked the best parts from rugby, and passed them by.

Greg Growden wrote on cricket and rugby at the Sydney Morning Herald for more than 30 years, and has penned biographies of Chuck Fleetwood-Smith and Jack Fingleton

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