By Joe Barnes
IT’S FAIR to say Rob Howley has been subjected to a testing introduction to life as an international head coach but chatting to him at The Vale, ahead of tomorrow’s game at Murrayfield, he cuts a far more relaxed figure than he has of late. For while Howley has attracted opprobrium as Wales lurched to five consecutive defeats on his watch, he deserves credit for reviving his side’s fortunes and putting them in contention for the Six Nations championship.
Quick to smile, it’s clear Howley is finally enjoying his time in charge but he’s not afraid to admit that he and Warren Gatland faced teething troubles as they worked out a coaching transition as Gatland departed for full-time Lions’ sabbatical.
“Taking the Argentina and Samoa games and then handing over to Warren for the Australia and New Zealand games was a difficult in terms of being a part-time coach. You know, managing the communications through that intense autumn period was difficult time for both of us.
Of course that chastening Autumn came off the back of a winless summer Series against Australia. “When you revisit the Wallabies and the 3-0 Series loss, that still hurts, yet if you look closer at the way we lost them and the nature of the defeat, they were very small margins but with huge consequences. On our return, we thought if we’d shown more composure in small areas we could have easily won that test series 2-1.”
In this Six Nations, the portents did not bode well as it took Howley and Wales 43 minutes to kick into action, as they ‘won’ the second-half 19-7. However, this was after a torrid first half which had seen them commit a multitude of unforced errors to go in at the break 23-3 down. Howley concurs. “You cannot afford to give any international side the opportunities that we gave Ireland. The second half was a totally different story and to be honest we should have still won that game, we go back to those small margins that left us going into the French game with our backs against the wall.”
The former Wales and Lions scrum-half refuses to take personal plaudits on his contribution to his team’s revival, instead preaching consistency and the need to give opportunities to those who have earned the right to wear the Welsh shirt.
“Coming into the Six Nations, this team hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 12 months. We had injuries in the second row but players have come through, in particular Andrew Coombs, who has been outstanding. We’ve always believed in giving opportunity to players who have put their hands up with the Regions.”
With the clock on the Scotland game ticking, Howley is happy to see his side’s confidence returning, intimating to a return of attacking intent that has absent of late.
“We’ve gone away in the last couple of weeks and played a game plan to suit the conditions. Winning has changed our mindset and bred a new self-belief and confidence. Of course we want to play with the ball in hand but it has to be in the right areas and conditions.”
Howley’s dreams of front-foot, attackig rugby may be put on hold for a while as he plans to nullify Scotland’s ‘in form’ back three of Sean Maitland, Tim Visser and Stuart Hogg.
“Quality players want time on the ball. We can’t afford to give Stuart [Hogg] any time. Our kicking game has to be accurate and put them under pressure, whether it’s from possession or kicking to the corners. We need a good kick chase because if you can beat the first or second defender at this level, it creates opportunities.”
One points Howley has stressed to his squad is the importance of focusing on Scotland and not allowing thoughts to run ahead to the England game in eight days time.
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“Whatever happens against England will happen. The media and the supporters in Wales have always got one eye on the England game but we’re not looking beyond Scotland, for now.”