PLYMOUTH Albion legend Dan Ward-Smith said he was not surprised to hear new England boss Eddie Jones had invited Graham Dawe up to Pennyhill Park to do some scrum work with the national side.
Ward-Smith, who spent six years at Albion between 1999 and 2005, is full of praise of Dawe’s coaching abilities and says he owes his career to Plymouth’s director of rugby.
The number eight, who went on to star in the Premiership for Bristol and Wasps after leaving Albion, is currently living in New Zealand but is reviewing his options after four years managing a rugby academy.
Despite the fact that he is at the other side of the world, Ward-Smith has been following Albion’s and Dawe’s progress.
“I do follow Albion’s results and I see the team is winning and doing really well now,” said the club’s record league try-scorer, who helped Plymouth achieve two successive promotions and get to within touching distance of the Premiership.
“It’s great for the club to have Graham back there because he has got a real good name and has had success before.
“He is an original thinker. A lot of people don’t understand his ideas are great – he has some really good ideas.
“I was not at all surprised England approached him. Eddie Jones himself is a brave and original thinker.
“Some people might have been surprised Eddie Jones selected Steve Borthwick as forwards coach. That’s outside the norm of going for someone with a ton of Premiership or international experienced. He only stopped playing recently, but Eddie goes with what he thinks.”
Ward-Smith, who first came to Dawe’s attention while training with Launceston, added: “I always thought Graham had a huge impact on my career. He made me the player that I was.
“When I left Albion I was in a good place to kick on. I had that work ethic instilled in me. I learnt from Graham that if you want to go anywhere no-one is going to hand it to you on a plate, you have to work for it and put in the extra time.
“I definitely didn’t appreciate that when I arrived at Plymouth. It took me a couple of years to realise it, but by then I definitely realised I was capable of going on and doing more but also knew what it was going to take to get there, which was basically hard work.”
Ward-Smith went on to become a Premiership star with Bristol and Wasps, but has admitted his heart was always with Albion.
“I loved Plymouth,” said Ward-Smith. “It was a great time for me. I think some of my best rugby came there as that was before I got injured. I was playing really well there but didn’t really get the recognition, apart from locally.
“In the end I had to move, but it was not because I wasn’t enjoying it and I still felt I was developing as a player at Plymouth. I was just running out of years, so felt I had to move on.”
He added: “But I’ve always considered Plymouth my club. That’s the club I feel connected to, having spent so much time there and having had so much success.
“Obviously, when you spend a period of time somewhere like I did at Bristol or Wasps, you still follow their results, but your first club and the place where you developed is always going to be the club where you have the real connection with.
“Graham recognised what I was able to do and manipulated the game-plan to match, so it worked really well for me. My role within the team was perfect.”
Within months of leaving Albion, Ward-Smith was selected for the England Saxons squad and not long later he was called up into the main England squad.
Ward-Smith had been due to make his England Test debut against Scotland in the opening game of the 2007 Six Nations tournament but he suffered a career-threatening injury.
Although he returned and toured with England and played non-cap internationals, he never got to make his Test debut.
“It happened and that’s that,” said Ward-Smith. “It will always be something that I will look back on and feel I could and should have achieved more because of the position I got myself into, but that really is rugby. The timing was real bad, but you are powerless to do anything about it.”
He added: “Obviously I was really disappointed at the time, but from that point where I thought I would never play again, to get back in contention for England, go on a tour and represent England a few times in non-Test situations was a good result from that point.”
Meanwhile, Ward-Smith is not surprised to hear reports that there is a good team spirit among the Albion squad this season.
“Whatever it is that Graham does he definitely creates an awesome team environment,” he said.
“He likes to move you out of your comfort zone and that helps you grow as a person and develop as a player.
“If you are just sit in your comfort zone and he made it easy for you, then you wouldn’t go anywhere.
“What he creates is an environment where you have to grow and develop and the squad is drawn together because of that.”
Ward-Smith is just hoping Albion can keep progressing and get back to the Championship.
“I would love to see the club on a solid financial footing and get promotion back to the Championship within the next couple of years,” he said.
“When I was at Plymouth the dream was always for Plymouth to be in the Premiership. It’s been a long time since I was there, so I don’t know the realities of whether that is something the club still look at, but that’s the ultimate goal for any rugby club.
“Plymouth’s a big enough city to sustain a really good team, so the goal of the club should be to go as far as possible.”
Ward-Smith, though, knows Albion really need sponsors and financial backing to achieve their goals.
“A coach can work wonders with players, but you have to have a budget,” he said.
“I couldn’t coach a team of five-year-olds to beat a team of nine-year-olds, it’s just not possible.
“That’s just the way it is. If you don’t have the support in place financially then you don’t have the things you need.”
Ward-Smith admits he looks at what Exeter have achieved and thinks what might have been.
“You can’t help think that could have been Albion,” he said. “It is the tale of two cities.”