Rob Howley was a long time missing from the union game, but the memory of his last act as a club professional - the gloriously opportunistic chip-and-chase try with which he secured a first European title for Wasps last May - softened the frustrations that followed it.
A more potent attacking force than George Gregan of Australia, more consistent than Fabien Galthie of France, and blessed with better hands than Joost van der Westhuizen of South Africa, the Welshman was widely lauded as the finest scrum-half of his generation. The only good thing about the announcement of his retirement yesterday was that it left his reputation intact.
Less than a month into his 35th year, Howley called it quits after losing another round of his fight against a deep-seated wrist injury - no kind of injury for any rugby player, let alone a half-back who lived on the crispness of his pass, as well as his wits. David Evans, the consultant surgeon who operated on the wrist last June, informed his patient that a pin inserted into the schaphoid had failed to fuse the fractured bone, and that there was no alternative to an acceptance of the inevitable.
"It is a sad and scary feeling to be told your rugby career is over," Howley said. "I had high hopes of returning to Wasps and even pushing for a place in the Lions squad for next summer's tour of New Zealand, but it is not to be. I remember playing my first few games as a youngster in Wales and wondering how long my career would last, and when it would all end. I now know the answer."
Howley first suffered the injury when he was stamped on during a roughhouse of a Heineken Cup pool match against Perpignan in southern France last February. He played the rest of the campaign in considerable pain, and was unable to take a meaningful part in contact training - a situation eased only by the London club's extraordinary burst of late-season form, which resulted in a domestic-European double. Hopeful of a return to big-time rugby, but never particularly confident of it, Howley learned last month that all was not well. Yesterday, he learned something worse.
Capped 59 times by Wales, he captained his country on 22 occasions. He also toured twice with the Lions, finally winning Test honours in Australia in 2001 after being invalided out of South Africa four years previously before the international action kicked in. He joined Wasps in 2002 after spells with Bridgend and Cardiff. Prior to his move across the Severn Bridge, he had been courted by both Bath and Leicester.
Gregan, who arrived in England yesterday as captain of the touring Wallabies, was among the first to pay tribute to his old rival. "There wouldn't have been a tip-sheet that didn't describe him as a very, very dangerous player," he said. "Rob could genuinely change games; I've played against only a handful of really great half-backs in my career, and he was one of them."
Darren Fox, the fast-improving Northampton flanker, has been banned for eight weeks by a European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel after being cited for butting during the Midlanders' narrow victory over Glasgow at Hughenden nine days ago. The tribunal, chaired by the Welshman Terry Vaux, viewed video footage of Fox's assault on the Glasgow captain, Cameron Mather. The player had already been sent to the sin-bin after an earlier butting incident.
Fox admitted the offence, but Northampton may yet appeal against the length of his suspension.Reuse content