GRAHAM Smith, assistant coach of England’s Women’s Rugby World Cup winning side, has paid tribute to Keith Bonser, his coaching mentor, who died yesterday after a period of ill health.
Bonser was an inspiration to Smith and many other coaches in the Midlands during his time as RFU Divisional Technical Administrator.
Bonser played club rugby for Nottingham University, Nottingham and Birmingham and county rugby for Notts, Lincs & Derbyshire. He then enjoyed success as a coach with Birmingham, Moseley and North Midlands and coached Midlands Counties against Australia in 1975.
Bonser was educated at Monmouth School, Nottingham University and Loughborough Colleges and later worked as assistant director of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Birmingham University.
His outstanding contribution to coaching was recognised with a special award for Services to Coaching at the Midlands Coaching Conference in 2009.
Bonser’s passing saddened Smith who was told of the news by Ian Bletcher, an RFU Area Player Development Officer, during an England Women’s training session at Loughborough University.
“Towards the end of my playing career I started doing some coaching and got on the awards system and Keith was one of the assessors,” said Smith, a former Moseley and Scotland A prop.
“He showed a lot of faith in me and he was instrumental in helping me get the Youth Development Officer job for North Midlands in 1993 when I was unemployed.
“He and Ian Bletcher helped me with some development work to give me some experience. He was a tremendous supporter.
“I used to end up writing a lot of articles for the old Technical Journal and Keith used to decipher them from my Black Country writing and make them sound plausible.
“He was an absolute gentleman who was respected by everybody as a DTA. Even later in life when he was in his mid-60s he had an approach that age is an attitude of mind not a number.
“His vision of the game was up there with Pierre Villepreux’s when Villepreux was trying to play an expansive style. Keith would always see something that others didn’t.
“He was a massive influence on me and many others. He just had an eye for the game and he had that touch of rugby genius to be able to get his point across when others might not have seen the same thing.”
Bletcher, a former Birmingham hooker who also began his RFU career as a YDO in North Midlands, said: “Keith was a true gentleman who combined great knowledge and ability with a rare gift of communication and a genuine interest in helping others develop.
“His many years at Birmingham University meant he influenced generations of students and teachers of PE and the universal respect and admiration he was and is still held in is incredibly rare.
“Not only was he a very talented coach who set the highest standards throughout the Midlands as the RFU Technical Director but he continues to set the standard regarding innovation and open mindset amongst many of the coaches he mentored.
“His influence on Phil Pask the England phsyio was massive and Keith not only developed and guided his rugby skills but was a major part of his career change and the position he now holds.
“Graham Smith rang Keith to thank him for the help he had given him in his early career as a coach after winning the Women’s Rugby World Cup and, despite his illness and time out of the game, Keith gave as always great guidance and insight and Graham is forever grateful for the impact Keith had.
“A truly stylish man, Keith was the epitome of the core values of our game and would be extremely modest and considerate to all he worked with.
“He guided the Birmingham club, North Midlands and amongst other sides successfully coached England B team against Russia.
“Keith was great linguist and not only could he speak good Russian but he astonished the North Midlands team he coached on tour in Spain by delivering a post-match speech in excellent Spanish to the great delight of the hosts.
“A true gentleman who was a massive contributor to the game and lives of many.”