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Howells plots Romania's course back to the glory days

In a hotel just off Vincent Square, lying in the shadow of Westminster Cathedral's campanile, are the Romania squad. As they sit in various pods in reception, waiting for the next hour-long schlep to their Dulwich College training ground, they sip from the coffee mugs dwarfed by their vast paws. The man charged with keeping their focus and ensuring their pent up energy, and perhaps boredom, is channelled towards their opening Rugby World Cup game against France on Wednesday is Lynn Howells, the 65-year-old from Wales' Rhondda Valleys.

"The first thing which amazed me when I took on the job was the size of the people in the country," Howells tells ESPN. "They are big, big people. The size of our lads is normal. The front-five forwards, they just churn them out."

Howells' coaching journey is a match for even the most nomadic tacticians in the game. In his playing days he turned out for Pontypridd at No.8. His coaching journey started there; nine years later he was drafted into Graham Henry's backroom staff during the Kiwi's Wales tenure. He took charge of their tour to Japan in 2001 while Henry was on British & Irish Lions duty and led them to Test victories in Osaka and Tokyo, making him the only Wales coach with a 100 per cent win record.

Two years with Cardiff followed and he then took on the top job at the Celtic Warriors when they introduced regionalisation to the Welsh game in 2003. They were defunct within a year and their demise led Howells to vow he "would never coach in Wales again".

He has stuck to his guns. After two years in Italy with Leonessa and one with Edinburgh he arrived as a technical coach to Romania in 2012, working alongside then head coach Hari Dumitras. Dumitras was soon gone and Howells, the personable rugby scholar, took over, charged with spearheading their bid to make the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool stages. But when he began his time with Stejarii -- the Oaks -- he was met with a team and union in the midst of a rebuilding process.

Romanian rugby has struggled since the fall of communism in 1989. Their two premier teams at the time -- Dinamo Bucharest and Steaua Bucharest -- were in effect the first professional rugby sides: they consisted of policemen or those in the army and trained six times a week. In the 1980s the national side regularly knocked over France, Italy and Wales but then when the regime fell, so did the rugby team. Five players died in the 1989 revolution, among them captain Florică Murariu, an officer, who was shot dead at a roadblock.

Romania's form nosedived as they were forced to rebuild the rugby team from the ground up. Their World Cup performances from 1987 have produced five wins in their 24 games but Howells senses they are getting back to the level they were at in their pomp.

The key for Howells has been developing the backs, specifically the nines and tens. This starts in the SuperLiga, Romania's top flight competition -- next season the league will be expanded from eight to 10 teams, with Timișoara Saracens and current champions Baia Mare likely to be challenging for the title.

"The biggest problem when playing France or Ireland will be the pace of the game" Lynn Howells

But the ever-demanding need for success within a competitive league brings its own challenges. Faced with a dearth of half-back talent, the preference is for recruiting overseas talent rather than nurturing from within.

"The whole club scene is professional," Howells says. "They train every day, they have all the facilities and have everything in place to take it to the next level but they need to introduce coaching for the coaches and to get the players to do skill-based sessions from a very young age.

"Next year they start with four centres of excellence but the problem they have is the structure. There is no limit on overseas players, so if the teams want to win the competition they bring in players from overseas. The biggest problem we have are the decision-makers, so they fetch them in -- probably from the Islands."

Then there is building the grassroots, with many players coming to the game late. One of their top players, Castres loose-head Mihai Lazăr, only started playing aged 16. The same went for former hooker Marius Tincu, who chose rugby over boxing at the age of 14. Physicality can be nurtured to generate forwards but rugby intuition for the decision-makers cannot be fast-tracked.

The hope is that new development centres will see such skills nurtured in the Oaks of the future from a younger age. They will also be instrumental in fending off interest in budding rugby players from rival sports. Football dominates the agenda, while the Olympic sports are also hugely popular with a recent surge in those playing handball. Simona Halep's rise in the tennis ranks has also caused increased interest there.

It all makes Howells' job that little bit more difficult, as does the disbanding of the Bucharest Wolves, who played in the European Challenge Cup. The team, formed of the SuperLiga's best homegrown players, gave Howells an opportunity to try out potential combinations outside of the national restrictions. But their place in the qualifying competition for Europe's second tier tournament went to Baia Mare, and they lost their play-off to Russia's Enisey-STM who will play in the Challenge Cup next term.

Howells is making the best of the hand he has been dealt. He earmarks hooker Otar Turashvili, kicker Florin Vlaicu -- who has an 89% success rate -- and centre Paula Kinikinilay as players to watch out for. He has also tweaked their game plan so they play to their strengths.

"The problem they had was they thought they were New Zealand. They had to keep it simple and do those simple things very well. And it is also a case of putting together a game plan that suits Romania. It's no good putting together a game plan that is a 15-man game. The biggest problem when playing France or Ireland will be the pace of the game. They won't have experienced anything like that.

"World Rugby has tried very hard to introduce a better level of competition for the Tier Two nations but it's difficult for them to play against a Tier One nation like France when you play them once every four years or so. It will be a step up in physicality and intensity.

"World Rugby have been great to us -- without them Romanian rugby wouldn't be at the level it is at the moment -- and we have played Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, but it's not the same as playing a Tier One nation. I can understand from their point of view. When you say New Zealand is coming to Wales and it is costing the WRU a certain amount of money to get the game on, they will fill the stadium and get that money back, and some. It wouldn't be the same for Romania -- on both sides -- so it's difficult to ask a Tier One nation to do that."

Howells sees the introduction of relegation-promotion in the Six Nations as an essential change if the European Tier Two nations are to improve and challenge on a frequent basis. It's something he hopes will be introduced sooner rather than later as he also has the 2019 World Cup on his radar. By then he feels he will be back in his original position of technical advisor with Romania, having identified a successor to take over as head coach in 2017.

Back to the present. To aid their bid for the World Cup, Howells has drafted in outside help to make sure his squad are in the best place possible ahead of Wednesday evening's opener. Ex-Newcastle Falcons fly-half Dave Walder spent some time with them kicking, while Bristol coach Sean Holley also spent a few days working on their skills. But perhaps the most intriguing outsider brought in was referee Alain Rolland. "The players sometimes get, how do I say it, over-excited," Howells says. "Game awareness is the biggest problem as they love the contact. It's something Alain has helped them with."

The match against France at the Olympic Stadium on Wednesday evening will be proof of whether all of Howells' endeavours are rewarded. The preparations have been aided by their strength and conditioning coach Oliver Rieg, who is using his eight years with Biarritz and a preference for reading French sports newspaper L'Equipe to give Howells inside knowledge on Les Bleus.

Qualification from the pool, despite the remarkable benchmark Japan set against South Africa, will be beyond Romania but Howells still wants the rugby world to take note of his side. He deserves that. "I want us to compete against the Tier One nations in this World Cup. If we can compete and show we can play at this level, that's great. And if we can get a result that'd be fantastic."