Former All Black prop Steve McDowall thinks he was probably spied on when he first arrived in Romania.

It's not as clandestine as when the country was behind the Iron Curtain but one in four people are still said to work for the government as informants.

What they would have discovered, if they chose to look, was a former All Black prop working for the Romanian Rugby Federation.

He was brought in as high performance trainer and scrum coach but he soon progressed to forwards coach for the national team. Today they play the first leg of a home-and-away play-off against Uruguay to find the final qualifier for next year's World Cup.

Romania have qualified for every World Cup to date and there is an expectation among rugby fans there, even an arrogance, they will do it this time, too.

But Romanian rugby is hardly in a position of great strength, as McDowall is finding out, and they will need to be at their best to beat an improving Uruguay. The last two times the two countries met, at the IRB Nations Cup in Romania in 2008 and 2009, the Eastern Europeans won 17-11 and 10-6.

It would be a remarkable journey for McDowall if Romania triumph. He would join John Kirwan (Japan) as one of only two All Blacks from the World Cup-winning side of 1987 to return as a coach for next year's World Cup.

It seemed a preposterous suggestion just over two years ago. He had been talking to his wife about taking their four children overseas and trying to pick up a job in rugby, somewhere, when a call came out of the blue. Ellis Meacham, who was involved in Wellington rugby before taking up a role with Romania, jokingly asked him if he wanted a job.

Meacham needed a fitness trainer and McDowall, a former top judo exponent and personal trainer who counts Jonah Lomu among his former clients, wanted a job.

He ended up jumping from coaching the North Harbour Marist under-8s to working with a national side.

"This is a good grounding for me, because you really have to coach," McDowall says from his home in Bucharest. "It has been frustrating at times because in New Zealand you get used to players who know what they are doing but my skill base as a coach is growing all the time.

"When I first came over, they were all into body building, which had nothing to do with functional strength. They were just pumping iron in the gym. When I used to play, no one used to train with weights. I was one of the first.

"The coaches here are stuck in their ways and don't like change. They need only one win to say, 'I told you so' but you can tell the improvement is not great and the fitness is lacking, which effects their skill.'

"It's been an interesting journey to first of all build relationships with the players. They still struggle with nutrition and fitness, especially for paid players, but the biggest problem is the technical side. When the players come back in [to the national set-up] we have to try to un-teach what they are learning."

It has certainly helped McDowall can put 'former All Black' on his business card. It gives him instant credibility among players who often disregard what other coaches are telling them because they didn't play to a high standard.

McDowall even found himself putting down a few scrums to show them what he was talking about.

"These guys aren't used to doing a lot of homework," he says. "They look to you to do everything but we are trying to help them think so they can transfer that on to the field."

The pool of players to pick from isn't vast. There are about 800 senior players in Romania and a handful of the better ones play in France, Italy and England. There are 12 teams in the first division and eight in the second but McDowall says only the top four play to a standard he likened to Auckland second division club rugby.

Regardless, it's a role he's thoroughly enjoying and it's been made much easier by the fact his children, aged between five and 12, have adapted well. They are in an international school and have picked up the language more quickly than Dad.

"It's worked out really well," he says. "It's a little bit what you make of it, too. There's quite a lot of corruption. If you want something done, you can pay someone and they will push it through. It's just how it's always been. When we first got here, one in four people were informants for the Government so everyone was spying on each other.

"Within the rugby community, there is a certain amount of arrogance. Sometimes that flows down to the players. They certainly have to pull their heads in from time to time. It's not a guaranteed thing [we will qualify for the World Cup]."

McDowall's contract with Romania runs until the end of the World Cup, assuming they make it. He has already been approached by two other tier two European countries to take over as head coach, which he has found tempting, but the Romanian union would also like him to stay on for another four years.

"A lot of people don't last long here. Generally they bolt but, once you understand the place and people, it's not too bad. I have aspirations to coach at a much higher level, just like when I was a player, but it's not the time for me. I still have a lot of growth to do.

"If we don't qualify, I will see if there are opportunities to move on. But I need to consider the kids because they are well settled. Maybe another couple of years would be quite good here. It's not a bad option to stay here."

Of course, the spies will already know that.

Steve McDowall
Age: 49

All Black career: The former prop played 46 tests between 1985 and 1992 and was a member of the 1987 World Cup-winning side.

Coaching CV: Old Belvedere's under-18 assistant coach (Ireland), NZRU mentor and scrum coach, Auckland scrum coach (1993), Tonga defence and scrum coach (2007), North Harbour Marist junior coach.