EXCLUSIVE: Howley admits he was 'gutted' when Wales return was blocked

‘I made a HUGE mistake but I’ve served my time. I was gutted when the board said no’: Rob Howley recalls the pain of his blocked Wales comeback after serving a betting ban… as ex-captain explains how he would solve their rugby crisis

  • Howley’s return was blocked by the WRU, who felt it was too soon after his ban
  • The former captain was banished from Welsh rugby for betting back in 2019
  • He is now a coaching consultant for Toronto Arrows in Major League Rugby

Rob Howley is sitting in his study in the Toronto suburbs. He is a few hundred yards from the frozen Humber River, iced over as temperatures plummet well below zero. News of the chaos in Wales has barely caused a ripple.

Having been banished from Welsh rugby for betting in 2019, Howley finds himself coaching the Arrows in Major League Rugby as part of his Rugby Canada role. He has served his ban and is preparing for Saturday’s game against New York.

Taking shelter from the cold, already at work on his laptop, he instantly pops up on screen when the Zoom link comes through.

‘Game’s on, then?’ he says with a grin. ‘Should be a good one!’

It is weeks like this when Howley wishes he was back home. ‘I miss it. I’ve missed it for the last four years. Wales versus England in Cardiff; it warms your heart. You miss the good times as well as the bad. Times like these make the highs even better.

Rob Howley, now with Toronto Arrows, has recalled the frustration of his failed Wales return

‘What’s happened this week reminds me of 2019, when there was talk of the merger between the Ospreys and Scarlets. There was a lot of white noise. It was a huge distraction but the players, like they do, found a way to beat Scotland and win the Grand Slam.

‘I’m sure the players will have a spring in their step after some of their demands were met. It’s their families’ futures at stake. I understand how they feel. Now they’ve just got to find some clarity and purpose. We’ve always got a fighting chance against England and I’m sure Warren Gatland will use that adversity in the right way.’

Howley  will watch the game on his laptop in the team hotel, almost 4,000 miles from the action. He will see his old seat in the coaching box on the screen and no doubt ponder over what could have been.

One of Gatland’s first moves when he was re-hired as head coach in December was to bring back his right-hand man. However, the move was blocked by the calamitous WRU board, who felt it was ‘too soon’ after his betting ban at the 2019 World Cup.

It was a tough pill for Howley and his family to swallow.

‘Ever since Warren spoke to me, asking me to come on board, the transparency between us has been absolutely clear,’ he explains.

‘I’ve been really grateful for his support. Warren got in touch two weeks before Christmas and I’ve never seen a smile return to the faces of my girls, Megan and Rebecca, like it did that afternoon. They felt their dad had a great opportunity after a difficult few years, rehabbing to get back on track.

Howley will watch Wales vs England on his laptop 4,000 miles from the action on Saturday

After an 18-month ban for betting, Howley felt he’d served his time and was ready to return

‘I had a call off then-CEO Steve Phillips, telling me the board had decided I was unable to return. I couldn’t understand it. Warren wanted me back and ultimately the head coach is pretty important in the organisational structure. I felt that I had done my time. A high court judge sat on the panel and gave me an 18-month suspension. I served my time. I was hugely disappointed, I couldn’t believe it had been turned down by the board. Christmas 2022 will be remembered for the wrong reasons.’

Plenty of water has passed under the bridge since 2019 in Welsh rugby. Howley’s gambling was triggered by his sister’s suicide and he has since sought help. It feels like the time for a second chance.

‘I didn’t leave the house for a period of time. The situation with my sister… I saw a psychologist for several months. I thought it was in the past so it was tough to take when it was brought up again six months ago. To be told, “No, you have to serve a little more time”, it was disappointing. We all make errors in life and I made a huge one. Huge.

‘I know I’m a better person and a better coach for what I’ve gone through. I wish my family and friends had never gone through that but it’s made me a better person and coach.

Howley feels that, given his experience, he’d be able to add value to the current Wales team

Howley’s gambling was triggered by his sister’s suicide and he has since sought help

‘I thoroughly enjoy working with Canada but it’s a long way from home. I feel like I can add value and support to the national team with my experience, and having worked with Warren for so many games. I know Alex King very well and he will do a great job with Wales.

‘I’ve had discussions with Warren and hopefully the door is slightly ajar. Those situations I found myself in, seeing a psychologist, I’m now willing to share those experiences.’ At a time when Welsh rugby is being swallowed up by darkness, a redemption story for one of the sport’s favourite sons would surely be welcome news.

With a celebrated history as both player and coach, Howley cares deeply about the Welsh game. He chats about Bridgend’s narrow defeat by Ebbw Vale last weekend. Friends at the club keep him up to date. His in-depth knowledge feels like it is wasted, but he is ready and willing to share his ideas for the future of his national sport. 


Wales 32 England 31 (Wembley, 1999 Five Nations)

I will never forget that late Scott Gibbs try. Winning international games in the last couple of minutes is priceless. 

Wales 30 England 3 (Millennium Stadium, 2013 Six Nations)

Stuart Lancaster closed the roof, it was one of his worst decisions! I’ve never heard the anthem sung so well. 

England 25 Wales 28 (Twickenham, 2015 World Cup)

Probably my proudest day in coaching. The resilience our guys showed in the second half… that was true Welsh spirit. 

Howley described Wales’ win over England in 2015 as his proudest day in coaching

Howley says a model of East and West Wales could work, with fans buying back into the game

‘Welsh rugby has been my life,’ he says. ‘It saddens me that it’s got to this stage where we haven’t got clarity in terms of a model that works. You can look over the sea with Leinster but you can’t copy and paste models from other countries. It has to be a Welsh model that suits the Welsh game.

‘It’s hugely frustrating for me that it’s come to a point where Welsh players have to threaten strike action in the week of the biggest game of the Six Nations.

‘We need to go to a model of East and West Wales, with a club structure underneath. You would have eight professional or semi-professional community clubs underneath them. If players aren’t selected for East or West Wales, they go back and play for their clubs. That would improve the level of that competition and have a meaningful role in the pathway.

‘There’s no hiding away, our regional game hasn’t been as successful as we want. Crowds have got smaller, not loving our game as much as we loved our game years ago. We need a model where fans buy back into the game and I feel a model of East and West Wales could work. I remember playing for West Wales when I was 21, in the old Arms Park on Boxing Day and 25,000 turned out to watch.

‘It is a big change but you have to be brave. The challenge is what fits in underneath. You need players from Bridgend, Cardiff, Newport, Swansea to be able to step up and step down. There needs to be a whole financial model.’

Asked if he fancies a role on the board, Howley rolls his eyes back and laughs. ‘No thank you! I’ll stick to coaching!’

Let’s hope that, sooner rather than later, that role is back where he belongs.

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