Howley back in tune with the Blues

After a tough start to his coaching life, the former Wales scrum-half, who won the Heineken Cup with Wasps, has helped Cardiff to the brink of the quarter-finals By Paul Newman
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The training session had finished more than two hours earlier and most of the players were long gone, but Rob Howley was still staring into his laptop in his office at the Cardiff Blues' smart new training centre at Hensol Castle. This, most definitely, is not the Cardiff he left four years ago to embark on a glorious swansong with Wasps.

"When I was here before, we used to train in a gym at a David Lloyd centre alongside every other Tom, Dick and Harry," said Howley, who now coaches Cardiff's back division. "We were like nomads, going from A to B to C to train. The facilities are the biggest change I've noticed since I came back. Having our own base here does so much for team spirit. You can create a successful environment.

"Welsh rugby has become so much more organised in terms of facilities, preparation and analysis of opponents. Analysis has become key. Players need to know whether their opposite number is right-footed or left-footed. They want to see the videos you put together to see what angles their opponents are running, the moves they use, their line-out. We never used to do this in anything like as much depth."

This week Howley has been working on a strategy to beat Perpignan, who visit the Arms Park today in arguably Cardiff's biggest match since they lost to Gloucester in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals five years ago. Both Cardiff and Perpignan have won three of their four group matches - Cardiff lost 37-14 at the Stade Aimé-Giral in France in October - and victory for either side in front of a crowd likely to break the Welsh record of 11,764 for a group match should book a place in the last eight. Cardiff could even lose and qualify by winning at Leeds in the final round next weekend.

Howley knows a thing or two about winning in Europe. His last match as a player was for Wasps against Toulouse at Twickenham in the Heineken Cup final two summers ago. With extra time beckoning, Howley chased as Clément Poitrenaud dithered and scored the winning try.

Understandably, Howley refuses to look beyond today's game. "I just want to beat Perpignan," he said. "They're a very physical side, very set-piece-orientated. If we can match that physical challenge up front, I think we can surprise them.

"We're not going to get complacent about the fact that their away form hasn't been great. They didn't get a bonus point away to Calvisano and they lost at Leeds. They had a bad result last Saturday, when they got pummelled away to Agen. But when French teams really need a result away from home, they often deliver.

"After the way Perpignan played against us in France they'll probably come here full of confidence, though we didn't play well. I think we had six players unavailable that day, but the side we'll send out this weekend is pretty well the team that recently beat the Ospreys quite comfortably. We're happy with where we're at. Putting 40 points on Leeds and getting a bonus point was key for us, as was getting a bonus point away to Calvisano. With two games to go, you want your destiny in your hands and that's what we've got. The foundations have been put in place. Now we need the surge for qualification."

Cardiff will hope that surge will come from Jonah Lomu, whose form is improving but who has yet to match the excitement generated by his sheer presence as attendance records have followed him around the Celtic League since his arrival in the autumn. Howley, however, is delighted by the All Black's progress.

"What he's gone through as a person - never mind as a player - is amazing and it's fantastic to see him back," Howley said. "He's been out of the game for three years and his body is learning to cope with playing again.

"We'll see a progression with him over the next three or four months. I thought he was our best player in the backs against Scarlets a couple of weeks ago. He was very good at keeping the ball out of contact, getting over the gain line, asking questions of the opposition. Before he arrived we played with two wingers who were very quick but not the most physical. Jonah's enabled us to play in a different way. Having a big ball-carrier means that he's going to attract defenders. He creates space elsewhere and when he gets the ball he still has the ability to hang on to it and get over the gain line.

"He's very vocal in training. He knows all about angles, kicking, kicking and chasing, communicating on the pitch. You don't play for the All Blacks without knowing a lot about the game and we can learn so much from him. I certainly will. It's priceless for the players around him, especially people like Rhys Williams, Craig Morgan and Chris Czekaj.

"Jonah wouldn't have achieved what he has if he wasn't critical of himself. You don't have to tell Jonah about the basics. He knows that he has to change the way he plays. Opponents are probably able to handle him a bit more easily than they did three years ago because they're fitter and stronger." Howley took his coaching badges while he was still a player and says he learnt much from the "very studious coaches" he worked under. "Kevin Bowring, who selected me for my first cap, was a huge influence on me," he said. "Graham Henry's analysis of the opposition was brilliant. Warren Gatland and Shaun Edwards at Wasps showed me how to create a successful environment, how to make players tick.

"Player empowerment was a big thing at Wasps. They recognised, much as the management team here of David Young, Richard Webster and myself do, that ultimately it's not the coaches who make decisions out on the park. There's no point in us deciding everything in training. As coaches we discuss areas that we want to work on. I'll have my own ideas, but then I'll go through it with the backs and together we'll work out a way forward. Dai gives me carte blanche with the backs and I wouldn't want it any other way. In the early stages I think I was highly critical of the players' performances, particularly the backs. I think I've been learning, both through our results and through the way the players have reacted. It takes time to get to know your players. You need to know when to crack the whip and when to sit back from it."

Howley returned to Wales last summer, having finally had to concede defeat to a serious wrist injury sustained, ironically, in a stamping incident while playing for Wasps against Perpignan two seasons ago.

"We looked at the video, but I don't know who the culprit was," he said. "I had a painkiller injection at half-time - I can say that now, though I couldn't have admitted it at the time - and I took some painkilling tablets. I played on with it in the second half. Warren Gatland wrapped me up in cotton wool for the rest of the season. I didn't take part in any contact training for three or four months and I didn't finish many games after that.

"At the time we were talking about extending my contract until the summer of 2006, but I don't feel any grudges. That's rugby. It's a very physical game. I could have suffered the injury when I was 21. And if you could write your own script for the way to bow out, it couldn't have been much better than the way I finished."

The only time Howley misses playing is on match days as the atmosphere builds and the tension rises. He knows he will feel that today on an occasion which will bring back one of his most cherished memories. Nine seasons ago, in the Heineken Cup's second season (Howley was at Bridgend when Cardiff lost to Toulouse in the final of the inaugural competition, which the English clubs did not enter), Cardiff enjoyed a famous victory over Bath in the quarter-finals.

"The Arms Park was absolutely packed and the atmosphere was fantastic," Howley said. "I can remember the crowd singing all the old Welsh songs and Lee Jarvis kicking a goal from the halfway line. Jason Robinson and Henry Paul both played for Bath. It was a very wet and windy day. We played on their back three - at that stage all Jason could really do was run - and it worked. We lost away to Brive in the semi-finals. I remember the French crowd throwing snowballs at Jonathan Davies when he was kicking."