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Guinness PRO12 Big Interview: Danny Wilson

3rd January 2017

Danny Wilson woke up one morning on Wales duty to discover that his reputation had preceded him in a way he could never have imagined.

His attention had been drawn to an item in an Edinburgh newspaper over the imminent Six Nations under 20 fixture against Scotland. It referred to the relatively new head coach of the young Dragons as he had not been referred to before, nor since.

Wilson remembers it well; a classic example of the right name, wrong person.

“It was the day before the game and there was this article stating that the Welsh players were being coached by Danny Wilson, the ex-Rugby League player and father of Ryan Giggs,’’ Wilson says, grinning at the memory. “I got some banter about that, I can tell you. Almost all of it from friends wanting to know why I couldn’t get them tickets to see Manchester United.’’

A fly-half who first surfaced as a Cardiff player when Gareth Edwards ruled the roost at the Arms Park, the older Wilson (and father of Giggs) had cashed in his Union chips for a career in Rugby League by 1976. That just happened to be the year of his namesake’s birth, almost directly across the Bristol Channel from Cardiff at Weston-super-Mare.

It is a measure of how much the codes have changed in the 40 years since that while one Wilson traded an amateur environment for a professional one, the other did exactly the same in making the opposite journey.

The West Country’s budding hooker may not have made it much beyond Weston Hornets and Bristol Under 21’s in the English game but he had a fair idea from an early age where he wanted to go and how to get there.
Enrolling at what is now known at Cardiff Metropolitan University proved crucial.

‘’UWIC (University of Wales Institute Cardiff) as it was then known, was always my first choice because it had such a good reputation for sport, particularly rugby,’’ he says. “They played it to a really good level.

“I loved playing there but I knew early on that I wasn’t going to be good enough as a player to make the big bucks. Fortunately, I had started to get my first coaching qualifications from an early age.

“Even if I had been good enough, injury would have made it impossible. I played for the university and for Treorchy until a degenerative disc problem in my lower back forced me to make a decision. It was an easy one to make, even though I was still in my mid-20s.’’

During those formative student years, Wilson encountered an international coach who would have the biggest single influence on his embryonic career.

Kevin Bowring, the Wales head coach whose departure in 1999 led to the arrival of Sir Graham Henry, would leave Wales to become the RFU’s Head of Professional Coach Development but not before Wilson had bumped into him.

“Kevin was one of my UWIC sports coaching lecturers and the university rugby coach,’’ Wilson recalls. “I cannot speak highly enough of him in terms of his helping me develop as a coach. He, more than anyone, got me on the right track.’’

That track has taken Bowring’s protégé into one of the top positions in the professional game as head coach of Cardiff Blues. Now, halfway through his second Guinness PRO12 campaign, Wilson has made enough of an impression to win promotion to the Test arena at the end of the season.

He will be part of a rejuvenated Wales coaching team for their tour of the South Pacific in June, taking in Tests against Samoa, Fiji and Tonga while the Lions are otherwise engaged in New Zealand. His previous international experience includes the biggest scalp of all.

During the 2012 Junior World Cup, Wilson’s Wales did what no team had done for four years at under-20 level.

They beat the All Blacks, 9-6 in the teeming rain at Stellenbosch thanks to two penalties from Tom Prydie and one from Matthew Morgan, now reunited with Wilson at the Blues after a spell at Bristol.

Twelve months earlier, at the same annual tournament, the Baby Blacks had thrashed Wales 92-0. “Those two years with the under-20’s gave me some credibility. I’m a coach who has follow a pure coaching route and that’s done me a world of good.’’

Wilson has come a long way since his first appointment, as a development officer for the Welsh Rugby Union with responsibility for the Rhondda, Cynon Taff area.

During that time he undertook roles with Pontypridd’s Under-21 team and the Celtic Warriors, before their controversial demise as the fifth fully-professional Welsh team created under the regional system enforced by the Union’s then chief executive, David Moffett.

Wilson learnt wherever he went, including a two-year full-time stint with the England Womens’ team under their celebrated head coach, Geoff Richards. He returned to Wales as a skills coach with the WRU Academy before
taking charge of London Welsh, then in the English second-tier.

“That was a big move, taking the plunge into the cut-throat world of the club game where the one thing you definitely do not have is job security. I brought in Phil Greening (ex-England hooker) as defence coach and we made the semi-finals of the play-offs.’’

Paul Turner, then running the Newport-Gwent Dragons, brought him back to Wales and into the Guinness PRO12 as forwards’ coach.

Some four years later, after stints at the Scarlets and Bristol, he was back in the Guinness PRO12 with arguably the most challenging of all Welsh regional jobs, at the under-achieving Blues.

“I’ve always known the expectation of the Blues’ supporters. In many ways it is no different to the expectation of Welsh rugby as a whole.

“I know with the Blues that other teams call us ‘The City Slickers’ so they can put us up there and hope to knock us down. I came in knowing that I can help make the Blues competitive enough to be a top-six team.’’

They got off to a flier, four straight wins ensuring them a top-four presence over the first month of the season. Five defeats from the next six matches has left them with ground to make up, ensuring the Blues go into the New Year facing challenges on two fronts.

After the Warriors in Glasgow on Saturday, their European fate will rest on winning their two remaining Challenge Cup ties, against Pau in France on January 14 and Bristol at the BT Sport Cardiff Arms Park seven days later.

In the best of all Welsh worlds, the Blues will be reunited next season with their most valuable former player but for now, Wilson and the Blues will bank on their potent new centre pairing seeing them into the top six.

Willis Halaholo’s arrival alongside the Samoan Rey Lee-Lo brings a reunion of Hurricanes from Wellington and the prospect of a fair wind blowing the Blues all the way into the Champions’ Cup next season.