The news that Rob Howley has been hit with an 18-month ban from the sport for betting on rugby union has been met with a mixture of derision and suspicion but the overriding feeling has been a more human emotion; sadness.
Time has helped – he returned home from the World Cup on September 17 – and there’s little doubt the verdict would have been more pointed had Wales bombed at the World Cup and a blame game ensued, but a creditable semi-final appearance and his successor being the hugely popular Stephen Jones, has softened the lens with which Howley has been judged by the public gallery.
In pure rugby terms, Howley is widely respected in Wales, but not loved. His coaching tactics with Wales, after a wildly-successful near 12-year stint, were often derided for their lack of wit, invention and flair but professional opprobrium pales into insignificance when compared with the personal shame he felt letting down his work colleagues, players and the nation he represented with distinction on 59 occasions.
A former Welsh captain, the potential damage done to those he holds dear would have left him feeling deeply remorseful.
Of course, there will be schadenfreude from certain quarters at this public humiliation. While widely admired for his achievements, he has crossed swords with a number of players over the years, many hurt from his idiosyncratic style of man-management. Lee Byrne put his head above the parapet accusing him of bullying in his autobiography when the two fell out over the latter’s non-selection for Wales. For Howley, adoration from his players came a distant second to silverware.
A perfectionist, with a ferocious will-to-win, Howley the coach did things his own way and he was backed to the hilt by Warren Gatland, a close friend, and someone not known to suffer fools gladly. Gatland admired Howley’s steely determination, one which made him one the most decorated individuals in the game with three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles, a Lions Series, two Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup.
Winning on the field of play was his addiction but as this cautionary tale tells us, the desire to beat the odds against a fearsome opponent didn’t cease outside the whitewash.
Away from the bright lights, Howley endured family tragedy, when his sister Karen passed away after a long-battle with alcoholism in 2011, and in the lengthy 41-point WRU report, this was said to be a trigger for Howley’s desire to place bets. Howley himself was said to describe his betting as a ‘hobby’, one indulged in for recreational purposes but the report said this word should be treated with caution, such were the risks. For many people, gambling is no harmless whimsy, it’s an addiction that can spiral out of control.
Indeed, Howley’s hobby has caused him irreparable damage to his reputation and the resulting ramifications have caused him considerable anxiety and stress and by proxy concern over the effect this sorry episode was having on his wife and daughters. This is not to be underestimated.
At least one former Wales international has no sympathy for Rob Howleyhttps://t.co/7JOoLcZ38l
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) December 16, 2019
Wales is often described as a ‘goldfish bowl’, and his hometown of Bridgend is one of its epicentres. A town of 35,000, it has produced the likes of JPR Williams, Gavin Henson, Lee Byrne, Rhys Webb, Scott Gibbs and Gareth Thomas. It is somewhere he would struggle to meld casually into the background. Every visit to the shop, pub or restaurant in recent months would have been met with rubber-necking and whispered voices and this will not abate any time soon. It will lead to speculation as to whether coaching abroad will offer easy sanctuary when his suspension is lifted next June.
His charge sheet doesn’t make for easy reading. He lost in the region of £4,000 and of the 363 bets over a four-year period, 24 were on ‘connected events’ with Wales participating. Two bets were placed on two individuals representing Wales, both of whom had to be interviewed by authorities. Crucially, Howley admitted he knew his actions had flouted Regulation 6, World Rugby’s Anti-corruption and Betting Regulations. In legal parlance he was guilty of the mens rea and actus reus, literally, guilty thoughts and actions. In common man’s parlance, ‘it’s a fair cop, guv, I’m bang to rights’, which may have helped his case in mitigation, as his punishment was decreed.
This high-profile case will undoubtedly draw into sharper focus the relationship between sports stars and gambling. Take football. It is saturated with gambling advertising.
Half of the 20 Premier League clubs have their shirts sponsored by betting firms, thus recouping £69m in revenue, and its adverts adorn the advertising hoardings and populate the club websites. In the Championship, it’s even more widespread with 17 out of 24 sides, as betting risks becoming normalised.
Day-to-day, you’ll struggle to go a few days without seeing a professional athlete plugging a piece of social content, sponsored by betting companies. Are the government’s regulatory body, the Gambling Commission doing enough? Is the slogan ‘when the fun stops, stop’, really going to lead to an addict dutifully hang up his dice? Betting has changed irrevocably.
In Howley’s case, he only had to dutifully hand in his company laptop and mobile phone for evidence of his wrongdoing. Gone are the days where you would have to slip surreptitiously into a slightly down-at-heel high-street bookies, averting the gaze of fellow gamblers. You can now speculate to accumulate on any electronic device 24/7.
There have been isolated cases before in rugby, Leicester’s former defence coach Philip Blake was suspended for betting on the Tigers in 2015 and Matt Hart, Maro Itoje’s former agent, was last year suspended for 22 months for breaching betting regulations but with rugby union soon to be awash with £650m of CVC venture capitalist lucre, you can be assured that where vast sums of money go, the gambling firms will follow and temptation will increase.
On a personal level, while Warren Gatland, and members of the WRU hierarchy have dealt with a very sensitive situation with tact and empathy, you would hope that Howley is receiving the after-care that he deserves as a long-time employee. He is said to be receiving help from a consultant psychologist but as those affected will know, there is no sticky plaster for addiction, it will be a lifelong battle. What help can the WRPA (Welsh Rugby Players Association) offer him, and what other avenues there are for players, coaches and support staff to seek if they are affected by what is a societal problem? The Sporting Chance clinic, founded by former England and Arsenal captain, Tony Adams is one such place for recovering addicts to exhume their inner demons, but should the game’s governing bodies being doing more to raise awareness?
While the wider rugby public now know about his recreational predilections, only Howley will know whether his ‘hobby’ is under control but what is beyond doubt that it has blighted a hitherto stellar career. How seriously, only time will tell.
In society, second chances are to be applauded, and personally, I wish him luck in rebuilding his career.
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