Loose Pass: Howley’s howler and media pressure

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with how Wales will cope, and a new wave of general strange pressures within the game…

Picking up the pieces

Never mind it was the occasion of his 56th birthday, never mind it was only five days out from their World Cup opener. For his lieutenant of 12 years – a staggeringly long time for a coaching team to have stayed together at international level – to have transgressed as Rob Howley did must have cut Warren Gatland as deep as you can imagine.

The details are simply not known. But that the allegations are serious enough, that after Howley’s full cooperation the WRU felt it necessary to send him home and call for an independent disciplinary panel rather than an internal one, that his former colleagues are talking about mental support rather than patience, all lends itself to the feeling that Howley’s transgression might have been grave indeed.

Gatland’s plans, to an extent, lie in ruins. Not only has he lost his second set of tactical eyes and ears, he’s lost the person with the most intimate knowledge of Wales’ evolution over the past dozen years, the man he’s trusted with the keys to Wales’ car while Gatland was away on Lions duty, and the man with the most in-depth knowledge of Wales’ players bar none. As fly-half Dan Biggar said: “For people like myself, all we’ve ever had is Rob as a coach in this setup. He’s given us every cap we’ve had.” For nearly all in the Welsh squad, they’ve known nobody else.

Not that Howley was ever universally popular despite his impressive CV. Lee Byrne, one of Wales’ most talented backs of the past dozen years, was acidic in his autobiography, accusing Howley of bullying and being uncommunicative. Howley’s tendency to eschew rehearsed neutral soundbites for the actual contents of his mind worked people’s sensitivities over, despite the frequent proven wisdom in his words. He was a vocal defender of the Welsh style during the times of the media-invented ‘Warrenball’ direct attack, yet several talented players have enjoyed stellar careers under his guidance.

Welsh Rugby Union confirms coach Rob Howley has returned home from the World Cup “to assist with an investigation in relation to a potential breach of World Rugby regulation 6, specifically betting on rugby union.” pic.twitter.com/9BI6qtNaKh

— Dan Roan (@danroan) September 17, 2019

But only to an extent do Gatland’s plans lie in ruins. While the mainstream media focus is on Howley, Welsh fans and opponents might do well to consider the following: Stephen Jones also knows Howley and his thinking well – Howley was Jones’ coach as Wales were desperately unlucky not to make the 2011 final. Jones has also overseen the Scarlets’ re-emergence as a team that can run with speed, strength and style; there are several of his charges in the Wales team. Jones was the team’s leadership group’s choice for Howley’s successor even before the betting scandal had broken.

As Gatland said on Tuesday: “Sometimes that (adversity) brings teams closer together.” For Wales to survive this World Cup, it has to. And given that, even with Howley likely to be disgraced, the players and union closed ranks to protect him from public and media persecution. It seems that there could be a leitmotif of ‘doing it for Rob’ emerging within the squad. A fascinating storyline awaits.

Pressure points

The betting scandal has – so far – been dealt with in exemplary fashion by all parties concerned. But even leaving aside the headlines created by Howley’s indiscretion, the mixture of controversy-sniffing and controversy-proofing/focus-enhancing measures by media and teams respectively is impressive.

It’s a part of rugby’s accession to the mainstream for sure, but it’s also a reminder to governance and facilitating at all levels that there is work to do bottom-up in the game after the World Cup takes care of the top-down stuff.

England’s players were instructed to stay off their phones on matchdays, both for fear of social media repercussions and of unwelcome characters looking for info to help shape their gambling strategies.

Went to Disneyland today (the Springboks are basically staying there) to ask the Boks about doping in rugby.#RWC2019 pic.twitter.com/3hURjYaJrq

— Eoin Sheahan (@EoinSheahan) September 17, 2019

South Africa’s Matthew Proudfoot was forced to sidestep some rather aggressive questioning about whether there was a problem with doping in the country. Australia’s Michael Cheika touched upon the abuse and threats he has faced in the wake of the Israel Folau saga.

Even the governing body has been publicly casting doubt on the salami-tactic takeover of the game by the less-than-philanthropic equity firm CVC, while also being forced to defend the officials over implementations of the tackle laws before a ball has even been passed.

It’s going to be the most high-profile World Cup, probably the closest and most exciting, but also the most-scrutinised, debated and regulated. Players have never been so much in the public eye, media coverage never so blanket. It’ll be a new level of pressure for all. The winners will be the ones who react best.

Loose Pass compiled by Lawrence Nolan