Paul Turner - Ampthill head coach

Q&A: Underdogs Ampthill are ready for the fight

After coaching stints at Sale, Bedford, Harlequins, Dragons and Wasps, former Wales, Newbridge, Newport and Sale fly-half Paul Turner tells NEALE HARVEY why leading underdogs Ampthill into the Championship is a highlight of his career.

What do you make of the Championship challenge?

The league’s certainly become more serious now and it’s changed a lot since I won it with Sale in 1994 and Bedford in 1998. The main changes have been the strength-in-depth of squads, the quality of players who nowadays jump through into the Premiership and even with England, and clubs have got themselves a lot better organised. It’s a really exciting time for Ampthill and we’re no longer just a signpost on the M1. We’re more than that now and if we can develop over the next year or two and move into a new stadium as planned, we’ll be in a really good position.

Can you believe the journey you’ve been on at Ampthill since leaving top-flight rugby in 2012?

It’s been a fantastic. After leaving the Newport Gwent Dragons in 2011 I had one season at Wasps and then Mark Lavery, our director of rugby, phoned me. I knew about Ampthill through my playing and coaching days at Bedford and knew it was a lovely community club with the biggest junior section in the East Midlands. They were in National Three Midlands and wanted to progress so it was a good challenge to take on. We went to great places like Sutton Coldfield, Longton, Sandbach, Syston and Bournville and managed to win the league, and it’s gone on from there. We lost the National Two play-off to Darlington the following year, one of the worst moments of my career, but came up the year after and now we’re up into the Championship. We’ll just try to keep developing the club without losing the things that are dear to us.

Mark Lavery is unusual in that he’s Ampthill’s DoR as well as being the club’s main sponsor, so how does your relationship work?

I regard him as a big friend and I think we understand each other. We have our spats and there are occasions when I’ll lambast him but we know what each other is good at and without him we wouldn’t be where we are. He appreciates my experience. It’s not just about him and me though, there are other important people behind the scenes and the fact that guys like Josh Bassett (Wasps), Lewis Ludlow (Gloucester) and Dean Adamson (Bedford) came through our juniors shows the club is situated pretty well. We’re actually turning people away at the moment so it’s very important we have the new stadium and facilities it will provide. It’ll only be a mile or so away from Dillingham Park, near the new Center Parcs at Woburn, and with us not being far off the M1 we’ll be able to capitalise on that accessibility like Exeter and Worcester have.

Reflecting on your departure from the Dragons in 2011, do you regret the acrimonious nature of it?

There was a lot of politics at the end of my time there. I’d been the Magners League coach of the year the previous year but I had a spat with the WRU over an injury to a player and after losing a Heineken Cup match to Glasgow, I had a spat with a journalist as well. I shouldn’t have reacted the way I did and I regret the way I went out but looking at the year the Dragons had after that, it was probably better that I departed. That’s life, you can’t change it, it was something that happened and within what seemed like five minutes I’d gone from being one of the easy-going guys in Welsh rugby into a real villain. There’s a middle ground between that and I can still remember all the good times I had playing for Newbridge and Newport and I’m still a big supporter of Welsh rugby. I still consult for the WRU now for their Exiles programme.

Can you tell us a bit about that role with the WRU?

My role is to unearth players with Welsh heritage across the UK, as well as globally, and get their names to the regions. After that it’s up to the regions to negotiate with the agent and get the player over the line. The ‘Project Reset’ stuff going on in Wales at the moment has curtailed some movement as clubs adjust to that but it’s good to be involved. We’re just about to run a series of camps for exiled Welsh boys from U14s to U18s at Nottingham, London Welsh and Bridgwater and we’ll expect to see around 300 players at those three events.

There’s a lot of criticism of Welsh regional rugby, with many people calling for a return to a club-based format. What’s your view on the state of play there?

We certainly have a very successful national side and whilst there’s huge criticism of the regional game even to this day, I don’t see any other way we could do it. Everyone questions the David Moffett time in 2003 when we went to five regions but I can remember sides like Aberavon, Caerphilly and Cross Keys getting massacred in Europe and they’d just not have survived these days. Pontypridd were a good side and did well in Europe, but others were getting obliterated by teams like Toulouse and Montferrand so we just weren’t strong enough. What do you do? Go to four clubs, which would have been Llanelli, Swansea, Cardiff and Newport? If they’d done that the people from Ebbw Vale, Neath and Pontypridd would be up in arms so they had to go regional. There’s been a squabble ever since but the main thing is the national side – and the national side has been successful. We’ve got to sort our grassroots out with so many teams struggling but the national team is in fine fettle.

Does it bother you that not one region has a Welshman as it’s rugby director?

In fact, the only Welsh head honcho anywhere in top-flight rugby is Dai Young at Wasps. It’s quite sad that there isn’t a Welsh head coach within the four regions. In my time at the Dragons there would have been Lyn Jones (Ospreys), Phil Davies (Scarlets), Dai Young (Cardiff) and myself and we didn’t change for a number of years. It seems as if foreign coaches are in vogue now and guys from New Zealand are appreciated more than we ever were. In my time at the Dragons I felt we punched above our weight, regularly beating sides like Ulster, Glasgow, Munster and the English teams in the cups, but never really got the recognition for that. I’d imagine the WRU will be working to get more Welsh coaches into the system and there’ll be a lot of junior coaches working within academies that they’ll tend to push through into first teams. You just hope some of those will emerge into top jobs because there does seem to be preponderance of overseas coaches.

Everyone knows an Anglo-Welsh league would be a rip-roaring success. Should Premiership Rugby rip up their template and get the Welsh regions involved?

We should be looking at it but we probably missed the boat years ago. It’s always possible but I’m not sure how much the Premiership needs it now. If CVC are looking to get involved in the PRO14 as well as the Premiership, things might change and I hope they do. Growing up in Welsh rugby there was always huge excitement about playing English teams. Before leagues started Newbridge always used to play Bristol on Boxing Day and they were great occasions. Newport’s best crowds of the season were against Bath, Bristol and Gloucester and the Welsh clubs were in fine fettle. It’s a pity we can’t get back to that because I’m sure it would appeal to English fans and TV companies as well.

How do you rate Wales’ chances at the World Cup?

They’ll be very well prepared, that’s for sure. The way we won the Grand Slam wasn’t pretty but it was successful and we’re on a long winning run now which will breed confidence and hold them in good stead for the World Cup. Warren Gatland and his staff have got to be congratulated for putting them in this position. It’s fair to say we’re not an entertaining team but they won’t worry about that, they’ve got a style that they’ve adapted to and it’s pretty ruthless. They’ve got one of the best defences in the world and it has all the hallmarks of being a very good World Cup for them. As a proud Welshman, I’d love to see them win it and they certainly have a chance.

You’re only 59, do you have any ambitions of returning to top-flight coaching?

I’m very pleased with what I’m doing right now. When I got to Ampthill in 2012, Mark Lavery, below right, showed me more intent and ambition than I’d had in the previous ten years. That’s really important for me and he wanted to take us on our journey and see where we could get to. It’s been really satisfying and I’m proud of what we’ve done. We haven’t got the infrastructure we’d want for the Championship and there’s the infamous walk through the woods to get to our first team pitch, but I love the place and we’ve done good things by reaching this level. We are quite humble about where we are and we’ll be massive underdogs, but there’s a real good feel-good factor here. Clubs will come here and find small changing rooms but we’ve got one of the best playing surfaces in the league and we’ve come a long way since 2012. I can remember going to Newcastle with Bedford in 1998 and there were grass banks behind the goals and no proper stands, so everyone has to develop and we’re at that stage now. I’d never say never about returning to the top-flight but I’ve been with Ampthill seven years and see my future here. I’d be foolish to walk away and if we can establish ourselves over the next year or two with the new stadium to come, that would give me huge satisfaction.

Dave Ward - new Ampthill signing
New recruit: Harlequins hooker Dave Ward has signed for promoted Ampthill. Getty Images

You’ve done well signing Dave Ward from Harlequins, how did you pull that one off?

I knew about him from his Cornish Pirates days and he’s been a really good player for Quins. When his move to Yorkshire Carnegie fell through, we met him and I’ve been really impressed with him from day one. Both he and Darryl Veenendaal are good players and good young coaches as well so we’ll look forward to their influence and we’ll have more signings over the next three or four weeks. Everybody’s looking to sort their loan boys out for next season as well so, along with the existing boys who got us up and are looking to impress, we hope to have a competitive squad.

You mentioned Yorkshire Carnegie and we all hope they survive, but what do you think about the current structure of the Championship?

Firstly, I feel sorry for all the players at Yorkshire Carnegie who lost jobs. It happened to my old club Bedford in the late 1990s when Frank Warren walked away. Bedford were a great team that had just won promotion to the Premiership but when he went the club almost disappeared. What I’ve seen of the Championship from afar, it’s a great league with some very ambitious teams like Ealing, Cornish Pirates and Coventry, but rather than being a 12-team league I’d like to see it become a 14-team league. I know that would mean losing a small piece of the financial cake for existing clubs but it would give sides a 26-match league programme instead of 22 and, with a cup competition, allow clubs to market their home games throughout the season instead of having gaps. I can speak from authority in saying there are enough ambitious clubs in National One now and when you look at sides like Plymouth, Blackheath, Darlington and Moseley, they’d bring a lot to the league.

What are your plans for dual-registration at Ampthill?

In recent times we’ve had Nick Isiekwe, Ben Earl and Ralph-Adams Hale from Saracens and Northampton’s Alex Mitchell had a stint with us as well. I’ve got good associations with Saracens, Northampton and Wasps so we’ll keep those relationships and talks are ongoing.

Winner: Ampthill no.8 Billy Johnson collects his National Leagues Player of the Year award at the inaugural The Rugby Paper Awards 2019. Photo: Stuart Tree

Your Tongan back rower Ma’ama Molitika is nearly 45 now. Is he really going to play on?

Yes. He’s amazing. I had Ma’ama at Harlequins in 2004/5 and 14 years later, via the Cardiff Blues, he’s still going strong after six years here. He has the odd ropey game but he’s still probably one of the best players on the field and the Tongan boys who’ve played for us have been exceptional. Vili Ma’asi was the start of it and Soane Tonga’uiha, Aleki Lutui and Paino Hehea are one of the main reasons why we are where we are. We’ve got to be a bit careful now because of the EQP requirements but these guys have certainly helped us on our journey.

How will it feel to be coaching against Bedford’s Mike Rayer?

Mike’s a huge friend of mine. We played together and he was one of my first signings at Bedford in 1996. We speak two or three times a week, although it probably won’t be as much next season! We have great respect for each other and there’s a really good relationship between our clubs. Last season we played away at Bedford on Boxing Day and 4,500 turned up, so to be playing them four times this season in the Championship and Championship Cup will be brilliant for the local area. To be competing against Bedford shows how far we’ve come and it’s great to have caught up with Jersey and Ealing who also came through the leagues.

Should promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship stay?

It must. You can’t lose that, it’s the essence of league rugby. I half understand why the Premiership want to pull up the drawbridge but you have to keep that ambition alive. Exeter and Worcester have proved it and when you look at the investment sides like Ealing, Cornish Pirates and Coventry are making, there’s a lot of ambition in this league.

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