Saturday 29 July 2017

David Kelly: As Gatland again goes on Lions sabbatical, Rob Howley is struggling to replicate 2013 success

Wales temporary head coach Rob Howley. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Wales temporary head coach Rob Howley. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
David Kelly

David Kelly

Prince Charles is reversing his jalopy in Sandringham and accidentally crushes one of mother's beloved Corgis.

A genie emerges from beneath the passenger seat and grants him a wish but warns him he can't save what is clearly an ex-dog trapped beneath the wheel.

"Um," stutters the Prince, hopefully. "Any chance I can become king any day soon?"

"Mmm," mutters the genie, doubtfully. "Let's have another look at that Corgi, shall we?"

When - or if, as the disgruntled folks here will admonish - Rob Howley emerges in a dragon-festooned tracksuit top next autumn, he will enter his second decade as the heir apparent to the Welsh coaching throne.

For many in these parts, the reaction to his extended tenure has matched that of the general response to his announcement this week of an unchanged side to face Ireland - disenchantment at a stale and humdrum state of affairs.

Head coach Warren Gatland remains in peripatetic sabbatical duty, after his generous Welsh bosses once more allowed him to vacate his post to assume the mantle of British & Lions coach.

The last time he pulled such a trick, Howley (right) managed, despite a stuttering start - against Ireland, ironically - to pull off a notable Six Nations title success.

Since then, various coups aside, notably removing England from their home World Cup in 2015, they have achieved little of note.

However, en masse, the coaching team were granted extended contracts last summer to take them all to the next World Cup in 2019.

A run of just four wins in 12 games - one of them by the merest whisker at home to Japan - has undermined any faith in Howley to replicate his stunning 2013 success, even allowing for the stark decline in the quality of players at his disposal.

"Rob Howley's man management skills are very poor," were the recent claims from a former player, Andy Powell, admittedly one probably best remembered for driving a golf buggy the wrong way down a motorway.

Creative

"We need to change the way we play and let our players be more creative. We've got too many people in that coaching team who are not up to it."

Another, Rhys Thomas, reckoned the Welsh Rugby Union were bringing the country back to the dark ages.

"A few of us were involved in the 1990s and we know what it is like," mused one of those under-fire assistants, Robin McBryde, beneath the closed roof of the Principality Stadium yesterday.

In this feral rugby territory, tonight's 80 minutes represents more than merely a game, it will reflect the very essence of the Welsh soul as they bid to avoid a third successive Championship defeat and a second in a row in their own garden.

"My mother will be happy if we don't lose three matches in a row," adds McBryde.

"We live in a goldfish bowl here and we are aware of it. We will get flak, nothing changes."

Unlike in 2013, Howley is not merely an interim caretaker coach but the de facto head coach; effectively, we are told, Gatland has had absolutely no influence on his assistant in anything to do with tactics or selection.

Many Welsh cynics refused to swallow this tale when it was first served up; given their recent slump, an even more cynical collective will tell you that it explains almost everything.

Howley has been forced to shut out the growing clamour.

"I personally don't try and listen because in terms of the players and coaches there's a huge focus on what you need to deliver in a Test match week," says the two-time Lions scrum-half. "You don't want to be sidetracked in any way and those criticisms do have an influence if you allow them to infiltrate your decision-making.

"We have to be very clear in our mindset and it certainly makes you a stronger person. I have certainly become quite strong over the last two or three years.

"I am not only told about the comments by my media officer, but by my daughters too. It hurts the family more than it does you. It makes you stronger."

Joe Schmidt has noticed subtle changes, even if Howley's tweaks - a change in captain, from Sam Warburton to Alan Wyn Jones and an as yet inchoate expansion in style - have not yet produced anything tangible.

"I suppose part of it might be that there's been a couple of changes in personnel, like Ross Moriarty has played really well," the Kiwi says.

"Now that's probably selection more than anything else.

"They keep that ball and they keep the pressure, because as I said they are very much a gain-line team and it's very hard to stop them getting that gain-line when the big runners get involved."

"They seem to be showing a little bit of freedom in how they play the game. Gee, they had a couple of chances in the first half against England too where they could have got a bit more scoreboard separation and who knows what would have happened?"

Howley's full-time role is attack coach, and he will do the same for the Lions this summer, resuming his habitual status as Gatland's assistant, but his side's efforts have been, at best, mixed.

Rather than being on the front foot, they appear flat-footed. 2013 seems a distant memory to this country now.

Howley, nicknamed 'Stan' for his facial resemblance to Oliver Hardy's inseparable companion, has been left with a fine mess to sort out, not all of it his responsibility.

Wales have only capped three new players since RWC 2015; Schmidt has doled out 19 debuts in that time; their regions are in financial and structural disarray.

The side - the country - desperately needs a win.

Message

"International rugby is about winning," says Howley. "It's the same in cricket, football or rugby. That is the same consistent message to our players."

Can Howley deliver it?

The last time Wales named an unchanged side was 13 years ago. They finished the campaign with a conspicuous whitewash having replaced one Kiwi coach, Graham Henry, with another, Steve Hansen.

Hansen was no mean assistant; he spend eight years shadowing Graham Henry and ended up following his leader by winning a World Cup.

Many view Howley as more of a follower than a leader; even in his international days, he always fed off the larger team characters.

That lack of leadership seems to be dogging him now as a nation desperately beseeches their team to arise from its slumber.

A win this evening would make his temporary throne seem much more comfortable.

Irish Independent

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