Former Wales back-row Alix Popham on the abrupt end to his Test career, his business venture and why new coach Wayne Pivac can pick up where Warren Gatland left off
Alix Popham: ‘Not playing in big European games makes the Wales players fresher’
Forget the bookies, Wales will launch the Wayne Pivac era by winning the 2020 Guinness Six Nations. That’s the view of former Wales flanker Alix Popham, who sees only a stream of positives for his country despite the defending champions being rated only third favourites behind England and Ireland.
“I’m excited, it’s a new era,” he says. “Warren Gatland and his coaches did an amazing job and with what he’s put in place, Wales are in a much better position with strength in depth and the systems and the work ethic that he would expect from the squad. So Wales are in a good position and I’m excited by the new guys who have come in. It’s a great appointment having Sam Warburton in the mix and what he can bring to that role.”
Popham won 33 caps from 2003-08 as a bruising back-row and he’s delighted to see the return of a much-missed warrior to the squad. “I’m excited to see Toby Faletau back in the squad (after injury), he’s a world-class player. I think Wales are spoilt in the back row for the different options we’ve got, it’s a real strong position for us.
“Having Rhys Webb back in at scrum-half is only good for the competition. Two other great players in Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams are both playing well but competition within a squad is what you want. And I’m excited to see the young Gloucester winger, Louis Rees-Zammit, fingers crossed his (ankle) injury isn’t too bad. If they’re good enough to play it doesn’t matter what age they are.
“Alun Wyn (Jones, 34) has matured into a great captain and Wales play better when he’s on form and on the pitch. I hope he can make another World Cup. He has been looked after as regards how he trains, how much he trains.
“The problem with Alun Wyn is he never wants to be off the pitch. Even if they’re winning by 20, 30, 40 points he wants to stay on there and do the full 80 minutes for region and for Wales. He’s been lucky with (his lack of) injuries and I think he’s playing some of the best rugby of his career. We haven’t got a lot of strength in that position (second-row) and if we can keep him involved and hungry, all the better for Wales.”
Four of the five uncapped players in the squad play in the English Premiership. Popham believes that reflects well on the diligence of Pivac, who’s returning to the international game after five successful years at the Scarlets.
“Wayne did his homework on trying to get Welsh-qualified players for the Scarlets and that has resulted in players coming out of the woodwork who people didn’t know were Welsh-qualified. He’s picked these boys, playing well for their clubs, and it just makes the Welsh squad stronger.
“Second row, we haven’t had a hell of a lot of strength in depth in that area, so we’re in a better position for it. I’ve never heard of the guy before (Wasps’ Will Rowlands, who qualifies via a Welsh father) but as soon as I saw he was selected and I watched clips of him and saw his stats, he’s definitely an athlete, and a huge athlete, coming into the squad.”
What would be your starting Welsh back row for the championship?
“Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright and Toby Faletau. And Ross Moriarty on the bench. But is he not going to pick Justin Tipuric? He’s a world-class player. I just like the way Navidi plays, I like Wainwright since he’s come on the scene, he’s a breath of fresh air, just gets on with it, works hard, just keeps improving game by game for Wales. And we all know what Toby can do.”
On the surface, the failure of the Welsh regions to make a mark in Europe – the country’s only Champions Cup qualifier, the Ospreys, lost all their pool games this season – appears solely negative. But Popham thinks it could be a blessing in disguise.
“Over the years we’ve never done well in the Champions Cup and yet Wales have regularly performed well in the Six Nations. Maybe the boys are fresher because they’re not playing in those big European matches. They’ve got some freshness in their bodies after a gruelling 18 months of Six Nations and World Cup and then straight back playing for their clubs. So I think it will benefit the Welsh team potentially not being involved in those big games.”
It’s been 12 years since Wales entered the Six Nations under new management. Gatland’s first match as head coach was the 26-19 win at Twickenham in 2008 that launched the first of the Kiwi coach’s three Grand Slam campaigns.
It was also the day of Popham’s final cap, the then Scarlets forward coming off the bench to share in Wales’ first win at Twickenham for 20 years. In the book Behind the Dragon, lock Ian Gough says Popham was dropped for not sticking to Shaun Edwards’s defensive system.
“For the Scarlets he’d chase down the opposition scrum-half off the ruck and try to sack him,” Gough said. “He’d get his hands on him maybe one time out of four, but that wasn’t a Gatland/Edwards policy. Shaun outed him in the week for going against the system. He fell out of favour over that one small thing.”
Is that how Popham remembers it? “I can’t remember Shaun bringing that up,” he says. “I remember sitting down with Gatland and him saying I gave too many penalties away in that game. But I know what Goughy’s on about as that was one of my pluses, like Gareth Davies flies out of the line now and has been very successful at getting these interceptions, he does that for club and country and it’s just part of his game.
“I used to do something that I knew got up the nine’s nose by putting pressure on him. I’ve never heard Shaun Edwards comment on that. If that was the case that’s obviously his choice but my recollection was from giving penalties away.
“I thought I was good enough to play after that and when I was over in France (playing for Brive) I was being selected in L’Équipe’s Team of the Week, week on week.
“They did start talking to me about getting back involved with Wales but I got injured. So who knows? I don’t regret the move to France and being out of Wales because I played some of my best rugby in France. I always thought I was good enough to carry on playing for Wales but it didn’t come and so be it. I’m not bitter over that.”
“I always thought I was good enough to carry on playing for Wales but it didn’t come and so be it. I’m not bitter over that”
His career had plenty of other high points, including playing for his home town of Newport, winning the Powergen Cup with Leeds, and captaining Brive in the Heineken Cup. He retired in 2011 due to a shoulder injury and became Business Development Director at Amplified Business Content, and co-founded the Entrepreneur Wales Awards, which has since become a regional element of the Great British Entrepreneur Awards.
In 2016, he and his business partner, Nick James, were speaking at London Welsh RFC, with Tim Boag. Boag was looking for ways to raise money for the club after it had gone through liquidation. It was then they had the idea to upgrade the club’s facilities to start a co-working and business hub. Thus was born HUB XV.
“We use space within venues to build a co-working community. Members work in the space and collaborate with like-minded individuals, Monday to Friday. We’re building a trusted business community for members with sports values at heart,” explains Popham, 40.
“I’ve put a team around me who’ve got experience and credibility, people who have been very successful in business. How I thought of it, when I was setting up HUB XV, was Warren Gatland picking his coaching set-up for the Lions; he has specialists in each area and that’s what I’ve done with everybody involved at board level with HUB XV. So we’ve got that talent around the table from day one to make it a success.”
The first HUB XV opened at Bath Racecourse in June 2018, followed by another at Glamorgan Cricket’s home in Sophia Gardens last year. The next launch is coming up at Ascot.
“Members have been using it (the Ascot hub) since the start of January but our official launch is on 4 March. This is something we’ve learnt from the last 18 months of operating: we want to have a membership base before we actually launch so the hub is buzzing and there are people working from there. Rather than it just being a cold start.
“The plan now is to open in prestigious, well-known venues, and further down the line open in amateur and smaller venues to bring in much-needed revenue for these clubs.” HUB XV have chosen the My Name’5 Doddie Foundation as their official charity partner.
By the time of the Ascot launch, Wales will be more than halfway through a Six Nations campaign that sees them play all the ‘blues’ – Italy, France and Scotland – in Cardiff but bookies’ favourites England and Ireland away. That replicates the format of the 2008 and 2012 Slams but not last year’s.
“I think Wales will win the Six Nations because we have those three home games. The very tough one for us is going to Twickenham, which is never an easy place to go. I can see us winning the title but not a Grand Slam.
“I think the whole coaching set-up will have a long-term goal and a plan, preparing players for the next World Cup. It all comes down to blooding young players, which I think Wayne Pivac is doing with this squad selection, and giving some young boys an opportunity with some very experienced players alongside.
“We have a very tough tour in the summer (to Japan and New Zealand) but how do you prepare players for that level, playing against a New Zealand or South Africa? It’s about giving boys the opportunity and them experiencing it.”
For all the latest news, follow Rugby World on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.