Any rugby fan who has come across the classic, much imitated, Living with Lions series charting the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 1997, would have needed a heart of stone to not feel sympathy for Rob Howley when a very messy dislocated shoulder forced him out of the tour. Perhaps everyone in Wales and involved with Welsh rugby needs to go back and watch that sequence again, because little else in the form of sympathy will greet him this morning.
Rob Howley has gone from outstanding playing talent and record breaking Welsh rugby captain, to national pariah, doomed to be chased around the streets of Bridgend by mobs carrying pitchforks and wearing the tattered rags of Celtic Warrior jerseys, such has his stock fallen. His brief reign in charge of Wales has gone from defensible efforts in challenging climates overseas, to humiliating reductions in front of an increasingly hostile and disengaged home crowd.
Looking back though, it was always slightly puzzling as to why Howley ended up as the man in charge. Howley’s previously responsibilities fell on managing the Welsh attack, which since the reign of Gatland had begun, often seemed one of the weaker elements. Welsh victories had been ground out through fitness and forwards, not to mention a healthy dose of massive long range penalties. In attack Wales had been profligate for the talents at their disposal. The least effective cog in the coaching machine had taken over the entire managerial mechanism.
So as the knives are sharpened, and Howley’s back and shoulders becomes notable for the many laser projected red dots that are fixed on him, what next for the former Welsh hero? Quitting would be the honourable thing to do at this stage. Other than Nigel Davies and Scott Johnson, who arguably had few resources, certainly in terms of time with the squads at their disposal, there is now no worse Welsh international coaching record than Rob Howley’s. Take away the Welsh victory over the fictional nation of the Barbarians, and Howley has the worse Wales coaching record in history. Others have been fired for far less from the Wales post, is there any justification for his continuance into the Six Nations?
If Howley is coach going into the prestigious tournament, he would likely be taking on a team that will in all probability have suffered seven defeats in a row, and could well sit outside the top ten of the world rugby table. Is there anything in Howley’s coaching pedigree to say that he won’t lead Wales into double figures of consecutive defeats? Not yet at least, and we should all hope for his sake as well as that of Wales, that the WRU and Gatland have the good sense to hand over the reins to someone who is not covered in the persistent stink of failure, it is pervasive and does not wash off with ease.
In the memories of Welsh rugby fans, Howley probably retains just enough of a position in our hearts based on his on-field efforts to not be completely vilified. But that situation will only remain, and his legacy be assured, if he does the right thing and step to one side. Yes, players a plenty are to blame for the defeats as well, but ultimate responsibility for persistent failure stops with the man in charge. It is the mentality that Gatland used to apply to his players, and it needs to be applied to his coaches as well. As soon as possible preferably.