Lance Bombardier Ken Dowding will be hoping to switch the battle fields of Iraq and Afghanistan for the plusher surroundings of the Liberty Stadium after being handed the opportunity to carve out a career in the world of professional rugby.
26-year old Dowding, who has served in 7 Para RHA since leaving school 10 years ago, has been handed a twelve month contract after impressing when invited to train with the Ospreys last season. Having turned out for Bridgend on a number of occasions during 2010/11, he will once again be registered with the Ravens in the Welsh Premiership for the forthcoming campaign and will train daily with the Ospreys as part of the B group of players at the region.
Having seen action in the Iraq War in 2003, and also served 12 months in Afghanistan five years later, loose head Dowding will be looking to follow in an illustrious line of military personnel to enjoy a career in rugby, including some of his current colleagues in the Army representative team such as Exeter Chiefs prop Chris Budgen and Fiji international Apolosi Satala.
Speaking about being given the chance to link-up with the Ospreys on a full-time basis, Dowding said:
“It’s a big opportunity for me. Last season I was able to see how Bridgend and the Ospreys work, I spent time training here and got a chance to work with the boys, but obviously, this year is big opportunity and challenge for me. I’ve got to work hard in training, perform well in the games I get and really try to make a good impression.
“There are a couple of other players combining an army career with playing top level rugby, so it is achievable. The army is very flexible when it comes to things like this, and will see it as a good way of recruiting new soldiers as they realise that 16, 17 or 18 year-olds who play rugby can look at it and see that there is a career opportunity for them. People may think of it as an option they may not have looked at.
“There’s also the benefits that the army rugby team gets when players go back there having gained experience with professional sides, it helps to raise the standard of the team there, and to bring along players in forces rugby. Believe me, that’s as competitive as it gets.”
Described by Bridgend Head Coach Steve Tandy as ‘hard working and a good scrummager, his real strength is in ball carrying’, as well as representing his regiment Dowding is regularly selected for both the Army and Combined Services XV's and has played against the likes of Samoa, Georgia, Argentina and the Barbarians. Earlier in his career he was a member of the London Irish Academy, and has also played rugby league for Harlequins.
Originally a back-rower, he switched to the front row just a couple of years ago after returning from Afghanistan having lost a considerable amount of weight on active duty, taking the advice of his army colleague and former Scotland prop Mattie Stewart, who suggested his physique and skills were well suited to the position.
“The army has given me some fantastic experiences” said Dowding.
“Not least travelling the world to play rugby, but there’s no getting away from it, I have experienced plenty of things in places like the Iraq war and in Afghanistan that aren’t so fantastic.
“But I’m really fortunate to have been able to experience everything that I have done, and now I have a great opportunity to play rugby, training with the Ospreys and who knows where it will lead. The way it works with the army is that I can only sign for twelve months at a time for a rugby team as they review things annually. I’m still a serving member of the army and could be called up if the regiment is, and I will be serving my full 25 year term. During the off-season I'll spend some time back at the barracks, but the reality is I’m a full-time rugby player for the next year.”
Having been handed his opportunity, Dowding has got stuck straight into pre-season work, reporting for duty with the rest of the squad last week, and he says he’s enjoying the challenge:
“It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. It’s been quite tough, it's the first pre-season I’ve ever done. I won’t say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it has been difficult. It’s quite an eye opener but I’ve enjoyed it.
“It’s not a big culture shock because my career in the army requires good fitness but I’ve been doing some courses at the barracks and then I went away with my regiment to America, which means it’s difficult to step straight into this level of training.
“The aim now is to perform as well as I can in pre-season and really show what I can do. It’s a massive opportunity for me, particularly with us having props away in the Wales squad, it means that I will hopefully be involved a lot in training during the pre-season and can really have a chance to set a high standard. It’s important that I take every opportunity that comes my way.”