Howley's wider picture

Alex Spink on a scrum-half who has moved to Cardiff to renew old ties
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Lunchtime in the Principality and time was short for Robert Howley. The Cardiff scrum-half had spent the morning at one Wales squad session and was preparing to head off to another. Nobody had said life under the Welsh rugby bosses Terry Cobner and Kevin Bowring would be easy. Nor had anyone said it would be quite so gruelling.

Even before Wales's summer sojourn Down Under, Cobner and Bowring, the Welsh Rugby Union's director of rugby and national coach respectively, had hatched plans to make the nation great again at the sport it reveres. Eight matches in Australia, including two heavy Test defeats, only highlighted the need for swift and radical change. "The system that Wales is part of is not challenging the players' ability," Cobner said on his return.

As a consequence, Howley and his squad-mates are sweating for Wales four days a week. While they might not thank Cobner and Bowring just now, with a possible 11-Test schedule this season they might later. "As players contracted to the WRU, we are required for eight or nine sessions per week at the moment," Howley said. "I do strength work, conditioning work, specialist half-back work, 'middle five' work and full squad sessions. Then there is training with Cardiff to fit in. The WRU are definitely getting their pound of flesh from us.

"But that is the way it needs to be. Australia showed us where we were in world terms and gave us an idea how much work is required if we are to seriously challenge the best sides again. We are confident as a squad that we are turning the corner. We have to have our own type of game and we think the new law changes have played into our hands.

"The non-contact Barbarian-type of game suits us down to the ground and, while we are under no illusions that it will take time to become consistently successful, if we can marry up fitness and strength levels now and get the country playing in a similar way, there is a bright future, I'm convinced. It's just at the moment that it is hurting a bit."

A big factor in Howley's decision this summer to switch allegiance from his home-town club of Bridgend to Cardiff for the club season which kicks off on Saturday was that he knew he would have to work harder to get a game.

"There was no scrum-half pushing me at Bridgend and it was not doing my game any good. At Cardiff my standards will not be allowed to drop because Jason Hewlett (signed from Newport) is after my place."

Whatever the riches laid at his door by Cardiff, it is a measure of Howley's desire to be the best that he opted for a return to the Arms Park club. Four years ago he made the same move, and he still maintains it was the worst rugby decision he has taken. "But things are totally different now," he insisted. "Rugby is a professional game. I'm not moving in mid-season as I did then, and this time I am not going there as third choice."

There is also the lure of playing in Europe and of accruing domestic honours; both of which, with respect to Bridgend, Howley would have grown old waiting for there. Cardiff, pipped to the league title by Neath last season, are short-priced favourites to make amends this time round. The transfer of the Wales centre Leigh Davies from The Gnoll to Cardiff, allied to the loss to Harlequins of the Neath locks Gareth and Glyn Llewellyn, has boosted the hopes of Cardiff supporters. Howley believes that even with Steve Williams, Barry Williams and John Davies stoking the fires up front, the Welsh All Blacks will find it hard to challenge for honours.

"Swansea are my dark horses for this season," he said. "They have recruited well, what with Scott Gibbs and Arwel Thomas, and have a very useful front five now Andy Moore is fit again. Llanelli will be competitive and you can never discount Pontypridd, with their two quality half-backs, but their pack is perhaps getting on and the game has got quicker with the new laws."

Put simply, Howley fancies Cardiff's chances. He will partner Jonathan Davies and, as well as the arrival of Leigh Davies, the coach Terry Holmes has brought in the Wales full-back Justin Thomas from Llanelli to replace Bedford-bound Mike Rayer. "We are looking to take both titles, Wales and Europe," Howley said. There was no more time for theory. A glance at the clock confirmed as much - it was time to return to national service. "Professional rugby is here, and anyone who tells you otherwise you can refer to me," he added.