Exit the floored genius

Inspirational scrum-half is heading for home as his dream of Lions greatness turns into a nightmare; Chris Hewett talks to the Welshman whose gifts will not now be put to the test
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The Independent Online
The Dislocated shoulder suffered by Rob Howley in Durban yesterday has deprived the Lions tour of one of the most imaginative scrum-halves of his generation. Personally it has robbed him of his chance to play with and to ignite the skills of perhaps the finest British Isles back division since Gareth, Barry, Gerald and JPR left the whole of New Zealand standing in the halcyon summer of 1971.

The 26-year-old Welshman had come a long way in a short time since his salad days in Bridgend where wet Wednesday nights tended to be more awash with mud than champagne. But his departure from the tour after the unluckiest of 13 minutes against Natal means that not only have the Lions lost one of their few definite selections for the first Test on Saturday, but that Howley's long-awaited contest with Joost van der Westhuizen has been consigned to the realms of what might have been.

That Howley is held in such esteem by team-mate and foe alike is undeniable. The remarkable thing, though, is how times change. Inexplicably ignored by the Welsh selectors until the ripe old age of 25, Howley was always destined to be the fulcrum of the bold, adventurous and entirely unexpected brand of 15-man buccaneership with which the tourists intended to spear the Springboks to the walls of Newlands, Kings Park and Ellis Park.

"I don't think anyone could have predicted a year or so ago that a northern- hemisphere side would turn out rugby like this," he said prior to yesterday's game. "The combination of professionalism and a tweaking of the laws to open up space has made for an exciting spectacle and I think that to play with pace and dynamism is the only feasible way forward for the British game. From a player's point of view, it's very special to be a part of it."

That special feeling has now been snatched from Howley and he will never know how he would have fared in what was billed as the most decisive personal confrontation of the Test series. Last December, van der Westhuizen put three tries past Wales at the Arms Park and, to put it mildly, Howley felt he owed the South African.

"It was very difficult to make any conclusions from the game the Springboks played against Tonga last week because of the standard of opposition, but they played a disciplined game in so far as they did not fall into the trap of throwing the ball around in all directions after effectively winning the game inside the first quarter of an hour. They kept their shape well and their two props, Garvey and du Randt, were immense around the field. When we last played them in Cardiff, they were very much a set-piece side - fit and powerful, admittedly, but quite basic in their approach. Not now. These big guys up front really get around. But for all that, there were things from the Tonga game that encouraged me. If the Tongans could cut through the Boks three or four times - and they did - I'm sure we can beat that with the talent we have available out wide

"We've proved our ability to create scoring opportunities and even though we haven't taken all of those opportunities, we'd far rather that than create nothing at all. When you have players like Gregor Townsend and Jerry Guscott outside you, the free-thinking, off-the-cuff style has no real limitations.

"The Lions' approach to this tour suits them down to the ground, doesn't it? It's not totally unstructured, quite the opposite; we know the channels we want to play in, rehearse specific angles and generally work extremely hard on the fine detail. But the coach also wants us to beat a man if he's there to be beaten and play off each other and that opens up all sorts of possibilities for instinctive talents like Gregor and Jerry. Let's face it, this sort of player doesn't come around very often. It's the same with someone like Arwel Thomas in Wales: yes, they can be difficult to read until you've learned to pick up on their body language. But look at it this way: if their own team-mates find them tough to read, imagine what it must be like for the opposition.

"Back home in Cardiff, I'm the main decision-maker. Here, it's different. Gregor calls the shots and I simply serve him; my role is to spark the backs into life and then play off them as they weave the web and, by and large, we've made it work. Even when we were big points down against Northern Transvaal last weekend, we said to ourselves: 'If we keep playing rugby, we'll work our way back into this.' It was a matter of sticking to what we believed in and sure enough, we did get back into it. We were probably one decent pass away from beating them."

Because of a history of problems with his left knee, Howley had already been seen as a potential injury risk by the Lions management who duly kept him away from the midweek fray - to no avail as it transpired. But Howley is a player's player, ready and willing to fight for the cause at any given moment. Calm and committed, he served a long apprenticeship in the Welsh club game which imbued him with the maturity of a 30-cap veteran long before he made his debut against England last year.

"Yes, I had to wait for things to happen. A lot of that was to do with Robert Jones, a great scrum-half who played a long time at Test level and rightly so. Also, I was out of favour for one reason or another; every selector has his individual point of view and in this game you need someone of influence to like the way you play. But when I finally got the call for my first cap, I looked around the dressing-room and realised that in terms of big games, I was probably more experienced than 10 or 12 of my colleagues. Now that a few Welsh boys have made Lions of themselves, we should be going back home with the right attitude towards helping the national side re-establish itself in world terms."

Sound sentiments from a sound rugby man who is going back home far too soon.