Jackson column: Star-maker Ioan Cunningham’s time with Wales must come

There used to be a time when Wales led the world in pioneering coaches, when Carwyn James, Clive Rowlands and Ray Williams changed the mentality of Test rugby.

Half a century later, the same country is so far behind the eight-ball in question that Welsh head coaches of any description, let alone of the pioneering variety, are as hard to find as words of praise from Edward Jones over the legality of the Irish scrum.

James applied invention and the sharpest analytical mind to outwit the All Blacks in 1971 during a Lions series like no other. Rowlands, the motivator par excellence, made Wales the most consistent team in Europe during the three years before the Lions tour and the three years afterwards.

While they were presiding over famous deeds on the field, Williams made his mark off it as the game’s first fully-paid coaching organiser.

A schoolteacher from Bangor who played for Moseley, among other clubs, he went to work with an evangelical zeal.

As a player, Williams suffered from the same handicap as James. Each had the misfortune to be pretenders to a 1950’s fly-half throne occupied by the peerless Cliff Morgan. James at least got his cap, against Australia in 1958; Williams had to make do with a final trial before he began thinking about an entirely new concept.

In a strictly amateur era ruled over by hidebound Unions, coaching was a dirty word. It smacked of professionalism at a time when to spend too much time preparing for a match was not the done thing old boy, hence the rule forbidding teams from assembling until 48 hours before kick-off.

Wales, mercifully, had a few within their ranks of sufficient vision to recognise coaching as the next big thing. They ignored the tut-tutting from Twickenham, Murrayfield and Lansdowne Road and hired Williams in 1967 to start spreading the word.

Their initiative having put them ahead of the game, the WRU would have been entitled to protect their place at the cutting edge of knowledge by keeping what they discovered to themselves. Instead they were willing to share it with the world and his wife and nobody took greater advantage than Australia.

One of the greatest Wallabies, the late Bob Templeton, became the first and most formidable of Williams’ coaching disciples. At that time Wales would ask questions if they failed to beat Australia by 20 points. Within ten years, the boot was on the other foot.

Williams died six years ago having lived into the old age denied James who passed away in his early 50’s. Rowlands, still going strong at 82, has long been concerned at the shrinking number of Welsh coaches in top jobs across the world.

Ten years ago a few could be found among the 38 clubs in Europe’s three major leagues and then mainly in the Welsh regions. Now there are none, the last man standing, Dai Young, having departed from Wasps earlier in the year.

Wales have avoided appointing a Welsh head coach since their shameful treatment of Gareth Jenkins, whose unceremonious sacking at the team hotel in western France the morning after their World Cup exit at the hands of Fiji denied him the basic dignity of returning home with the team. That was 13 years ago.

Cardiff Blues haven’t had a Welsh head coach since Phil Davies departed in 2014 to be superseded by ex-All Black Mark Hammett who had barely started work than a cabal of senior players objected to his style. Instead of backing their coach, the Blues management made a mockery of their appointment by caving in to the players when they ought to have told them their fortune.

Ospreys have not been under Welsh command since parting company with a back row forward who went to Australia and resurfaced in Llanelli a fortnight ago wearing a navy blue tracksuit as Scotland’s defence coach: Steve Tandy.

Since Kingsley Jones’ exit from Rodney Parade four seasons ago, one ex-international forward (Ireland’s Bernard Jackman) at the Dragons has been succeeded by another (England’s Dean Ryan). The Scarlets, by language the most Welsh of the regions, haven’t been run by one of their own since Nigel Davies left in 2012 since when they have had one Irish coach (Simon Easterby) and a trio of Kiwis (Wayne Pivac, Brad Mooar and now Glenn Delaney).

Their latest upheaval came at the expense of Scarlets’ highly successful forwards’ coach, the much admired Ioan Cunningham. His role behind the region’s rise as exhilarating champions of the PRO12 developed almost an entire pack into Test players, not least Tadhg Beirne who had been rejected by Leinster.

Delaney’s regime made no room for Cunningham. Yet only months earlier, Wayne Pivac had been considering making him part of his Wales chain of command as he had done with Stephen Jones and Byron Hayward before making Hayward carry the can for malfunctions elsewhere.

“I did have discussions with Wayne when he was appointed by Wales,’’

Cunningham says. ‘’I fully understand where I am in my career and we both agreed it was probably a bit too early regarding Test rugby. 

‘’You spend eight years at the Scarlets to bring success to Wales, develop future internationals and win the PRO12. Then it just stopped.

“There are a lot of young Welsh coaches in the regional set-up, learning their trade as assistants. When does one of them step up and take charge?’’

Cunningham applied to succeed Mooar after the New Zealander returned to join the All Blacks. “They gave the role to Glenn and he wanted to bring his own men in. I don’t feel bitter. Given the opportunity, I back myself to deliver. It’s a case of being patient.’’

Harlequins almost chose him as their new forwards’ coach before opting for Jerry Flannery from Munster. Another possible move, to Southland in Invercargill on the far side of the world as opposed to the far side of the Severn Bridge, had to be shelved because of travel issues caused by the pandemic.

Another ambitious Welsh coach, Mark Jones, has made a real impression in New Zealand with the Crusaders. Cunningham, currently director of elite rugby at Llandovery College, will be back in the pro game before long in the certain knowledge that a good man can be kept down for only so long.


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