It was back at the start of 2004 that Powell's mum, Gail, called McIntosh in South Africa to see if he could talk some sense into her son. Powell had prospered under the former Springbok coach a few years earlier at Newport, but after a far from fruitful four-month spell at Leicester, the then 23-year-old had decided to call time on his rugby career and get ready to take over his father's recycling business in Brecon. "I just didn't want to play, I didn't want to do it any more," explains Powell. "I was fed up with everything and wanted to give up and try something else. I went back to work with the old man and the old girl started to get worried about me and called Ian McIntosh. He then phoned me up and told me to get my arse in gear. He gave me the incentive to reach my best."
McIntosh can't remember the words he used during that phone call, but admits: "I probably blasted him a bit." It did the trick because after a few months out of the game, Powell started playing for Llandovery and was then picked up by Llanelli Scarlets. "Coming back I realised how much I'd missed it and how much I enjoyed the game," says Powell.
Despite renewing his appetite, it took a further four years for Powell to come to international prominence. As far back as 2001 Graham Henry included Powell in a Wales training squad, something Powell says he didn't get anything out of - "I was probably too young" - so why did it take him until the autumn of 2008 to win his first cap? Yes, injuries haven't helped his cause, but neither has his attitude. He readily admits that in the past he hasn't been totally committed and that led to various fallouts with coaches. While he thrived with McIntosh at the helm at Rodney Parade, when Leigh Jones came in things turned sour. "McIntosh was brilliant and gave me confidence, but when he left I didn't see eye to eye with the new guy, Leigh Jones," says Powell. "It wasn't just me, it was a lot of players. He was trying to change the game we played when our way was working brilliantly. You don't change something good to make it bad. He was just cutting off his nose to spite his face."
By January 2003 Powell had had enough and moved to Beziers, a move overseas that came "a bit too soon" and wasn't helped by the fact he picked up a knee injury. He lasted six months, then joined Leicester after Dean Richards had called, asking: "Do you fancy a challenge?" Four months and just one first-team game later, he was back in Brecon working for his dad, Gethin.
Even during his season at the Scarlets, Powell did himself few favours by missing training sessions. As one club official has said: "He'd say he'd been to a family funeral. He must have had 40 grandmothers who had died."
Powell is one of those players who stands out for his ability to do things off the cuff, but he has clearly felt restricted by game plans and tactics in the past, which is what has infuriated some of his coaches along the way. McIntosh knows that to get the best out of Powell you have to boost his confidence rather than criticise. "I found he was one of those guys who benefited from encouragement, not putting him down," he says. "A lot of young players have natural talent and should never be scared to have a go. They might make a mistake but they also do a lot of good things. You work on those mistakes but don't harp on about them because you don't want to stop a player playing his natural game. I've always said if you show you believe in someone, they usually believe in you as a coach. You trust them and they trust you. That's the relationship I had with Andy.
"Andy is one of those rare, unpolished gems. What makes them special is that they do things that are out of the ordinary. A lot of past players think that some players now are too structured. I've always said that once a player's got the ball in his hand it's his decision what to do, not the coach's. If that decision goes wrong, he's got to recover from it and learn from it, but it's his decision. Give them licence to play within a structure, to pick up the ball and have a go. I've read that he was a nightmare for some coaches and he may have been a bit slack on some things, but he was so refreshing to me as a coach. He wasn't run of the mill."
Powell has finally managed to combine his free-running nature with the need to have a game plan this season. Since joining Cardiff Blues in 2005 he has matured and two long-term shoulder injuries (the second occurring just three games into his comeback from the first) have given him the chance to reassess his goals.
"I've made mistakes but I've learnt from them. I've questioned where I'm going in life. I've grown up now but I don't look back. I've no regrets, it's all been a learning curve. You only get one chance in life and you can't afford to slip up."
Powell has taken his chance this season. An injury to Xavier Rush has allowed him to get a run of games for the Blues at No 8 and he has been one of the form players in Europe all season. The ELVs have allowed him to use his pace - in his early days he played at wing or centre - to great effect from the back of the scrum with defences that extra five metres back, but it's his running in open play that has really made him stand out. Often positioned back on the touchlines to field high kicks, Powell will take the ball, charge forward and, nine times out of ten, cross the gain-line, taking several defenders with him.
Against Gloucester and Leicester in October he made ten or 15 metres almost every time he got the ball because he has the footwork to beat players and such power that it is hard to stop his momentum. Those performances earned Powell a place in Warren Gatland's Wales squad for the autumn Internationals and he did much of the same at the Millennium Stadium.
Wales captain Ryan Jones was moved to blindside flanker to accommodate Powell at No 8 and he kicked off November by winning the Man of the Match award in the 20-15 defeat to South Africa. His form dipped against New Zealand but he was his normal rumbustious self for the final match with Australia and received a standing ovation from the Cardiff crowd when he was substituted in the second half. "That had the hairs on the back of my neck standing up," says Powell. "The biggest positive for me was that when I was carrying the ball I was a major threat. I see what's in front of me and if I have a chance I go with it. I won't go into contact for the sake of it. I do my thing but within the team structure."
His displays in November had many tipping him to start at No 8 for the Lions in their three Tests with South Africa this summer, but there are still a few question marks hovering over his game. His ball retention and decision-making are far from perfect while some are yet to be convinced as to whether he enjoys the nitty-gritty of back-row play as much as making the hard yards. Is it all style over substance? The Six Nations will be crucial to his Lions prospects because Ian McGeechan will not only see if Powell can show improvement on the Test stage but also if he can maintain his form now he has lost the benefit of being an unknown.
The change in attitude over the years means Powell himself now understands there are areas in which to improve and Gatland has been clear on what they are. "There are a few things to work on, like Gats said. He mentioned my decision-making when I go into contact. I get the ball and think I can make 20 yards every time instead of sometimes going to ground early and setting the ball up. I learned a lot in the autumn, every game I played I got better, but I can't get carried away. Every player has areas to work on."
As for the Lions, Powell admits it's a dream. He's watched all the videos of previous tours and would love to be on the plane this summer, but he also knows it's a case of playing well for the Blues and Wales. If he does make it to South Africa, you sense McIntosh might have divided loyalties when watching Powell run out against a Springboks side he's helped to select. "I hope he makes it. It would be great to see him there and I look forward to watching him play.
I was glad I was there for his first game against South Africa [in November] and I was very proud. He's got a lot of talent and I wish him luck. I see him like one of my sons. He's a special lad with special qualities."
So special that Gethin Powell is going to be waiting a few more years before Brecon Recycling is in his son's hands.
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