Rob Howley – The Caretaker In Careless Hands

Wales may have actually beaten Japan in their last game, they may have a current winning sequence that is twice that of the All Blacks, but the whiff of crisis is in the air. Graham Thomas examines the position of “caretaker” coach Rob Howley and suggests not much care was taken.


Looking ahead to Wales v South Africa, one former national coach reckons the team is in “a low, depressing, terrible place.”

But he also believes pinning all the blame on his successor is an exercise in misdirected anger.

Former Springboks coach Nick Mallett says: “It would be easy to blame the coach (Allister Coetzee) or the captain (Adriaan Strauss), but the problems run deeper than that.”

Whatever abuse Rob Howley is taking following Wales’ desultory draw with Japan, it’s not on the same scale as that being hurled towards Coetzee after his team’s embarrassing first defeat to Italy.

The reaction to South Africa's defeat to Italy has not been kind.
The reaction to South Africa’s defeat to Italy has not been kind.

But it ignores all the other problems in South African rugby, just as the criticism of Howley is a knee-jerk response towards an easy target.

The decline of the Wales team began long before Howley took charge this autumn. They have been regressing since 2013, the last time they won the Six Nations title – under Howley, rather than Warren Gatland.

Wales have played 40 Tests with either Gatland or Howley, or both, in charge since then and have won only half of them. A total of 20 victories and one draw, contrasts with the 55% win ratio they were achieving before that.

Howley lacks Gatland’s self-confidence, as well as his self-regard, but the fact that his position carries no authority is the fault of his bosses.

Every player in the Wales squad knows Howley’s time in charge is only temporary. He’s like a supply teacher filling in whilst Gatland enjoys his sabbatical with the Lions.

When Gatland told the WRU he wanted a second year off from his day job, they should have refused in the same way England and Ireland made it clear that Eddie Joes and Joe Schmidt were not for hire.

There were spurious arguments put forward in 2013 for Gatland’s career break – talk of him “broadening his horizons” and of “bringing knowledge back into Wales” – and the same guff was trotted out this season.

There were no advantages to Wales in Gatland taking a year away in 2012-13 and there will be no gains this season, either. Even the financial arrangements, which work out nicely for Gatland, don’t favour the WRU.

His choice should have been to remain with Wales, or resign and go with the Lions. That would have forced Wales to consider whether they wanted Howley to step up to the top job, or find someone else.

This season would have begun with Howley in sole and unambiguous charge, or else someone else – like Dai Young or New Zealander Dave Rennie – would be at the helm. It would be clear. It would be focussed on a certain future.

Instead, they are left with a poor compromise – a temp doing someone else’s job, a man undermined by the weakness of others.

If Howley manages a victory against the Springboks on Saturday, then repeats the Six Nations success of 2013, it will also be temporary before Gatland returns through to the 2109 World Cup.

If he loses then there will be calls for him to be booted out – for the current temp to be replaced by another seat-warmer for Gatland. Former Wales and Lions international Stephen Jones is the choice of some, although you would hope he knows that being a stand-in for a stand-in is not a wise move.

The WRU cannot appoint Howley if he does a good job – because Gatland has a long contract – and they cannot sack him for the same reason.

He’s a shadow coach, stuck in transit, not moving on, but not moving out, either.

One of his long-time nicknames is Stan, for his supposed resemblance to Stan Laurel, although it’s never been made clear who in the Wales management is, therefore, Oliver Hardy.

But this is certainly another fine mess, the WRU have got us into.


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