by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
Welshman Michael Owen was only notable to me during a 1999 Pontypridd senior team training session because he was so young looking. The international career that the fresh-faced number eight would go on to have was remarkable. Despite having to retire earlier this year due to persistent knee injuries, Owen amassed 41 caps for Wales. Michael will undoubtedly be remembered for captaining Wales to its first Grand Slam in 27 years in 2005. The 2005 British and Irish Lion joined Pontypridd as a teenager and earned his first test appearance versus South Africa in 2002. Owen missed the 2003 Rugby World Cup due to injury, but was a member of his country’s 2007 World Cup team. Michael and I had a chance to catch up last week and here is some of our conversation.
Tom Billups (TB): Did you play other sports growing up (as a majority of American kids do) before playing rugby. How did that assist your early rugby career?
Michael Owen (MO): I am a real lover of sport, and have been since I was a kid. I would watch any game that was being broadcasted. I played rugby, football, basketball and cricket when I was younger and definitely believe that it helped me in my rugby career. Most sports can help in a general way with hand-eye co-ordination, spatial awareness, ball handling etc but each sport can develop that skill in different ways and I believe that is vital for a sportsman. The more sports you are exposed to as a youngster the better it will serve you in the future. Knowing what I know now, the only two sports I would say are a must to work alongside general ball sports are swimming and gymnastics - the lifelong gains from these disciplines would definitely have served me in my career.
TB: Your career spanned some significant changes in the game, which changes stand out the most to you?
MO: I think the one huge change during my career has been the conditioning of the players. When I started the fitness work revolved mainly around cardio work but within a few years it was predominantly weights and strength training. Fast forward ten years and you can see the players who are coming out of the rugby academies are in absolutely phenomenal shape, bigger, faster and stronger than ever.
TB: What advice do you give 15 to 18 year old rugby players who strive to reach their potential?
MO: There are three main things to focus on a) Belief - sport is an opinion based business, some people will love you and some people may not, what is important is that you always continue to believe in yourself and prime yourself to take the rough with the smooth. You must also carry this onto the field where you must back your ability in game situation and give a good and true account of yourself as a player.
b) Graft - there are a lot of things out your control sometimes as a sportsman so the least you can do is give all you can to the things you can influence. Work to get yourself as fit as you can, practice your skill set and when you get your opportunities, in training and in games, work yourself to a standstill.
c) Listen (selectively!) - be prepared to listen to others, analyse what they have to say but while thinking it through for your self. You know yourself better than anyone else but you have to be strong enough to be totally honest, don't be afraid of any weaknesses - it's just another thing to work hard at.
TB: In your opinion, which are the most important skills for number 8 to possess in today's game?
MO: In my opinion the role of the modern number 8 is the be the heartbeat of the pack. They must be the main attacking threat of the forwards whether that is through ball carrying or playmaking, whilst bringing a huge work rate.
TB: In your mind, who is the best number 8 in the game today?
MO: I think the best number 8 around at the moment is Jamie Heaslip of Leinster & Ireland.
TB: You had a highly decorated career. Did you ever dream you might have all those rich experiences when slogging around in the mud at Sardis Road (Pontypridd’s home field)? What are your memories of Pontypridd?
MO: They really were just dreams for me, the fantasies of a young boy throwing the ball around in the street. The funny thing is that there is one training venue around 5 miles from my childhood home that I would go to when playing for my under 11s district team. At 18 I was back there in the same changing room when training with Pontypridd and preparing for the Heineken Cup, a dream for a local boy. But just six years later, I would find myself sat on the same locker room bench preparing to train with the British and Irish Lions for a game to be held at the Millennium Stadium where I would be captain. Not even in my wildest dreams was that a possibility. At the time you are just achieving the next goal you have created for yourself but on reflection, now I have retired, you begin to realise just how special those things are and you appreciate them all the more.
To learn more about what Michael is up to, go to www.michaelowenrugby.com
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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