Howley completes long road back to Wales role

It has been a long road back to Welsh rugby’s home for Robert Howley. But the former Wales coach and captain found himself back in the familiar surroundings of the Principality Stadium on his return to Warren Gatland’s backroom set-up as a ‘technical coach’ for the 2024 Six Nations.

It was a punishment handed out almost four years to the day. Now Howley finds himself sitting in the press room at the Principality Stadium, a ground which he graced as a player and coach for almost two decades. Was it a day and an occasion he thought would happen again?

“No. I’m just absolutely delighted to be back,” said Howley.

“This is a special place. I’m a Welshman, a proud and a passionate one. I didn’t think this day would come.”

Howley, 53, celebrated his return with his family after the turmoil of the last four years.

“You can imagine over the last 24 hours there has been a bit of celebration in the Howley household,” he said.

“They’ve supported me immensely over the last four years. The girls, Megan and Rebecca, are 24 and 22 now.

“When you go back four years ago they were in the final year of their study; Megan with psychology at Exeter and Rebecca was doing her GCSEs.

“The fact is we’ve got through that as a family and come through.”

Welcome return

Howley was given a coaching lifeline by Canada in 2020 after he served his nine-month ban, but returning to Wales was always the ambition.

When Gatland took charge of Wales for a second time in December 2022, the Kiwi was initially blocked by the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) from bringing back his former number two.

Then, earlier this year, Howley had a meeting with interim chief executive Nigel Walker and chairman Richard Collier-Keywood.

“The last year has been a tough one,” said Howley.

“The way the chairman and Nigel Walker have been over the last six months has been absolutely outstanding.

“I can only thank Nigel for all his efforts and thank the board. They’ve listened. The belief they’ve given me and the honesty I’ve given has been great. In fairness to Nigel and the chairman, they’ve given me a second chance.

“The experience I’ve had with Canada and the resilience I’ve gone through over a period of time means I feel I’m a better person, a better coach.”

So why now? Walker, who will become the WRU’s first executive director of rugby in January 2024, explained why this was the right time to bring Howley back into the fold.

“It’s been debated at board level a number of times over the last 15 to 18 months,” said Walker.

“Richard and I met with Rob six or nine months ago. He spelled out in clear terms why what happened happened. He sought professional help. He is rehabilitated as far as we are concerned.

“There is a commitment from Rob to use his experiences within Welsh rugby to ensure no-one makes the mistake he’s made. In a nutshell, that’s why we’ve come to the decision that now is the right time.”

After his 2019 transgressions, Howley sought professional help to cope with his gambling problems.

He admitted in the past he has battled demons that were triggered by the tragic death of his sister Karen.

“One of my discussions with Nigel and the chair was about sharing those services and wider services, and the resilience I had in 2019,” said Howley.

“Learning it’s okay to speak out and say I’m not feeling okay today… I need to have a conversation. And to see the psychologist for the period of time I did, it identified I needed help and I sought help. It took me a good 18 months to get through that dark period of time.

“Through that, you get resilience. Hopefully that resilience and experience I had, I’m there to offer any help I can with players who feel they need to talk and reach out.”

England captain Owen Farrell has recently decided to step away from international rugby with Howley believing the sport has become more accepting of such a choice.

“For Owen to make that decision, it’s been described as a watershed moment,” said Howley.

“Sometimes, we don’t understand the pressures on the modern international and those pressures filters down to age-grade.

“It’s important, as a coach and as a father, we support those players who might feel they need that support.”

Gatland’s trust

Warren Gatland and Rob Howley have worked together for Wasps, Wales and the British and Irish Lions

Gatland’s support has also been vital for Howley.

“He’s probably the best coach I’ve ever worked with,” said Howley.

“He’s got that ability, and we saw that in the World Cup, that no-one outside of maybe the team thought Wales would get out of that pool.

“I’ve kept in contact with Warren but the one thing about him is he’s very professional.

“Behind coaches and players, there’s mentoring and that sort of relationship. It’s about building relationships and trust is important in any sporting environment.

“The one thing myself and Warren have, I believe, is trust. What happened in 2019 and the trust he has shown since then is unbelievable.”

Dual role

Howley was interviewed for the Wales Under-20s job vacated by Mark Jones. That role was given to Richard Whiffin, but Howley’s new remit will see him work with the under-20s and under-18s.

“This was a surprise to me, when I went through the process I never knew this was going to be the outcome from it,” said Howley.

“To go through the process for the under-20 roll wasn’t easy when you’re on an interview with Warren who I worked with for 11 years.

“It was a process I enjoyed and I’m looking forward to being back in Wales and working with a team I love so much.

“The exciting part for me is to work with Richard. I feel the experience I’ve had over the last 11 years with Wales and then Canada will hopefully allow us to create an environment which fast tracks players into the national team.”

Wales Under-20s head coach Richard Whiffin (left) will work with Rob Howley

Alex King is Wales’ attack coach, which is Howley’s old job.

So what will his new role with the senior national side involve?

“My remit is the unstructured part of the game in terms of kick receptions, turnovers, contact area, working with the backs like I did back when I was in the role, working with the front-five on catch pass skills and within a coaching team,” said Howley.

“One thing Warren is good at is when you are in a coaching team, we all help each other. I’m here to support Alex as well.”

The new-look Welsh coaching staff will be first tested against Scotland in the Six Nations opener on 3 February, when Howley will sit in the Wales box for the first time in almost five years.

What will he be feeling as he savours the Principality Stadium atmosphere once more?

“Just immense pride and look forward to beating Scotland,” said Howley.

“There may be a tear there, especially during the anthem. To be there on a Six Nations day again will be special.”