Sympathy for Rob Howley’s Selection Woes

What a tumultuous six months it has been for Wales, Rob Howley & his coaching staff.  After a mixed tour to New Zealand in the summer, Warren Gatland left his post to take up his position with the 2017 British and Irish Lions leaving Howley in interim control [until Gatland makes a decision on his future].  As a result, one can have some sympathy for Rob Howley’s selection woes.

The role of an interim coach is somewhat of a poison chalice – neither here nor there.  A frustrating paradox between ‘the man minding the fort’ and the opportunity to shine by doing something different.

Gatland left at a time when fans and pundits were crying out for a different approach to be taken after a gutsy but ultimately fruitless challenge to the All Blacks. It was hoped that Howley – as attack coach and a man who as a player exhibited a good deal of offensive flair – would be able to bring about that change and encourage the team to move away from ‘Warrenball’ towards a more expansive game.

Selections Not Met With Huge Enthusiasm

However, the squad selection for the Autumn Internationals was not met with huge enthusiasm. Whilst it included the likes of Sam Davies and Rory Thornton; as form names of the time, most commentators didn’t think it went far enough. Most said the chosen group did not distance itself from Gatland’s previous squads.

Couple the disappointment of the lack of adventure of the selection with a series of poor performances–including a last gasp victory against Japan–and there was plenty of fodder for the critics.

It was therefore refreshing when the RBS Six Nations came around to see seven uncapped players named in, what many thought, was Howley’s first real selection without Gatland looming over him.

Rob Howley, Head Coach of Wales (R) and Alun Wyn Jones, Captain of Wales (L) pose With The Six Nations Trophy during the 2017 RBS Six Nations launch at The Hurlingham Club on January 25, 2017. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Indeed, at the official Six Nations media launch event at London’s Hurlingham Club, on behalf of Last Word On Rugby I myself asked the question of him ‘if the intention was to give any of these debutantes game time?’

“That selection decision will take place nearer the time but we want to get the blend right remembering that experience is vital in these games.”

And so it has proven to be the case, with none of the uncapped players getting even a bench position. The old guard trusted to come good on multiple occasions.

Opportunities Missed with Rob Howley’s Selection Woes

Some say opportunities were missed against Italy and that once the defeat to England had occurred, it was too much of a risk to blood youngsters against a Scotland team riding high. Yet the old guard let the coaches’ confidence in them down. That had created a headache for the game against Ireland.

With two games left in the Championship, I, like others, were calling for a change. Most were stating that there was ‘nothing to lose’…..yet there was a whole lot to lose potentially.  Defeats to Ireland and then France (this weekend) would have meant Wales facing another ‘group of death’ at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Faced with this possibility, I challenge anyone actually in Howley’s position, not to have relied on the established players who have come good in the past. Rob Howley’s selection woes may not have been ‘opportunity missed’ but truly, a dilemma for any coach.

Difficult Dilemma Requires the Best Selection Policy

Having repaid Howley’s faith in them, they now present him with an even more difficult dilemma.  If Wales took an away win in Paris and England were victorious in Dublin then the men in red might jump up to fourth in the world rankings–thus avoiding any of the top tier nations in their group, in the 2019 tournament. Rob Howley’s selection woes might then have been emphatically reversed.

Suddenly, the carefree development program to blood youngsters and new talent has become a risk which is difficult to take with such a potential reward within reach.  True, any team has to beat the best to win the world’s most coveted tournament, but it sure helps having ‘an easier ride to the quarter finals’.

It is worth noting that should results work out in that hypothetical way, you would have both Ireland and South Africa in that second tier. Given the two year gap between now and the tournament in Japan, those sides could be very different animals and if included in Wales’ group [with Wales possibly leading a Pool] could still pose the sorts of questions second tiers do not normally ask.

Cowardly Abuse from Social Media

So selection is not as straight forward as picking the most exciting and in-form club players for each game.  Those people who, on social media, have shown a needless and [frankly] cowardly level of abuse aimed at Rob Howley himself. That includes the #HowleyOut hashtag, and worse.

Not only him, but the other coaches as well were targets, so the instigators should do well to understand the pressures these men are under and show a ‘modicum of humility’ when expressing their opinion.

Furthermore, to possibly finish the season fourth in the world, and to have players like George North, Rhys Webb and Sam Warburton ‘firing on all cylinders again’ would not constitute the bleak outlook that some would paint.


Wales travel to Paris to face France on March 18. Follow all the Six Nations results here with Last Word On Rugby.

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