THE MONDAY INTERVIEW; Howley shoulders burden of regret

Robert Howley, Wales' abundantly gifted scrum-half, assures Ian Stafford that he has overcome the bitter disappointment of the Lions' tour of South Africa, when injury in Natal shattered his dreams
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Even now, 10 weeks on from the moment when Rob Howley knew his British Lions Tour of South Africa was over, it hurt. Physically, the Welsh scrum-half is well on his way to recovery after a shoulder injury against Natal ended his tour prematurely, but mentally he is still coming to terms with his misfortune.

As he sits in his home in Bridgend, which he shares with his fiancee, Ceri, and their two cats, the 26-year-old punctuates his description of the summer's events with deep breaths, long sighs and stares that penetrate far beyond his living room wall. For in the midst of even the greatest triumph there is always the flip side, in which somebody has to suffer.

"It's gone now," he says of the 1997 Lions. "It's history. I've been trying to forget about it ever since I came home in June, but it's been very difficult for me."

It is hardly surprising. Howley, in my book the finest scrum-half to emerge from Wales since Gareth Edwards, was seen to be one of the key players in the Lions squad, maybe one of just a handful who could, single- handedly, win a match. For all their pre-Test arrogance, the Springboks, and in particular their scrum-half, Joost van der Westhuizen, had carried out plenty of research on the Cardiff No 9, for they knew the damage he could cause.

This was the chance for Howley to shine on the world stage, and he knew it. "I felt cometh the hour, cometh the man," he admits. "There had been so much talk about the duel between myself and Van der Westhuizen, and I couldn't wait to get started."

He had already damaged his left shoulder after tripping up during training prior to the Welsh Five Nations game against Ireland, but his subsequent performances in the championship suggested that it was nothing to concern himself about. "I couldn't do weights on the shoulder, but apart from that I was fine," Howley recalls. "I'd say I was 95 per cent fit, and for the first part of the tour I felt in great shape."

He also looked in great shape, helping the Lions to impressive wins over Western Province and Eastern Province, and a narrow but educational defeat to Northern Transvaal. "I'd never been so nervous before a game in my life as I walked out on to the pitch to face Western Province in the first game of the tour," he admits. "There was an awful lot riding on the result, but after we'd won we all came off the pitch realising that, no matter what people were predicting, we could cause an upset in South Africa. We were all very excited, and this mood, coupled with the tremendous team spirit and the results, only increased as the tour went on."

Then came the Natal match. Howley shakes his head at the memory. "The game was only seven minutes old," he says, slowly. "There was a bit of a gap on the right-hand side. I'd made four or five yards when I was poleaxed by two Natal players. I went down on the same shoulder and it was the landing, and the fact that someone fell on top of me, that caused the injury."

He knew he was in trouble, but tried to delude himself by playing on for a further six minutes until the pain caused by a pass out to Gregor Townsend told him he had to leave the field. It was one week before the first Test in Cape Town.

"There were a few tears in the dressing-room," he admits "The South African doctor took one look at it and said: `Sorry mate, you're out of the tour.' Even though the boys had put 40 points past Natal they all made a point of putting their arms round me afterwards, but I left them to their celebrations, not wanting to spoil a great night. I was diagnosed to have ruptured all my ligaments."

Ceri and his family were booked to fly over from Wales that Monday for the Test the following Saturday. Instead, Howley flew back to Wales on the Sunday, alone and with his thoughts. "The rest of the squad were flying to Cape Town, while I was flying home. At the airport every single member of the squad, including the management, shook my hand. Then a South African fan came up to me, gave me his Springboks scarf, and told me he was going to miss not seeing the two best scrum-halves in the world in opposition." He pauses, as he takes a sip from his tea, before adding: "I put the scarf round my neck, and got on the plane for the loneliest flight of my life."

Howley's misfortune was, of course, England scrum-half Matt Dawson's gain who, ironically, had got to know his Welsh counterpart well over 10 days of room sharing. "Matt gave me his Natal jersey after the game, and said how sorry he was. On the Thursday, back in Cardiff, I decided to send him a fax, telling him to play like he had been on tour, and reminding him that Van der Westhuizen didn't, in my opinion, possess a right foot. I added that Matt should constantly pressurise the South African."

Two days later, when he should have been playing an integral part in the first Test, Howley was watching the match on television from his hospital bed. "I was asked by Sky to commentate, but I knew I'd find the whole occasion too difficult. I had to watch the game, of course, but it was best to be alone."

This turned out to be the worst part of the whole, sorry saga. "Five minutes before the start I remember going to the toilet and thinking, `I should be lining up ready to run on to the pitch, not going to the toilet in a Cardiff hospital.' Then came Matt's try."

Dawson became the unlikely hero of the day when, changing his mind about attempting an overhead pass to non-existent support, he conjured up an inadvertent dummy which fooled everyone and gave him a free run to the try line for a score that turned the game. "If I'm honest I have to admit feeling mixed emotions about it," Howley continues. "I was genuinely delighted for Matt, of course, but it was difficult to take. The funny thing is, if I'd been playing and tried the same dummy there's no way I would have got away with it because the Springboks would have taken me out.

"They would have expected me to have tried something like that, but they assumed Matt, who they knew little about, would pass the ball. I realised then that my injury may even have helped the Lions' cause, at least in the first Test."

Shortly after the final whistle Howley turned the television off. "I suddenly felt forgotten. The boys had won, and I wasn't a part of it. I thought about what they would be doing that night. Just think, 35 Lions out celebrating after beating the Springboks. What a night."

By the second Test Howley was at least out of hospital, although watching his friends and colleagues creating rugby history by winning the series in Durban was no easier. "I went to watch the game in a pub with some friends of mine," he says. "I needed a few beers to get through it, although, because I hadn't had a drink for weeks, I ended up falling off my chair. I celebrated that night, but felt gutted that I hadn't been part of a series-winning tour party."

Ceri spent the first of her two-week break at home helping her fiance before returning to work a week early. "We both decided it would be better for her," Howley admits. "I was having mood swings after reading about the Lions each day, but it got better when the boys returned home." He also received hundreds of letters from the public although, interestingly, nothing from Van der Westhuizen, his opposite Springbok number.

"No, I never heard anything from him, but I kept on reading how disappointed he was that all his hours of research on me had gone down the drain." Howley laughs at this. "I thought: `Tough shit.' I mean, who had it worse: him or me?"

It was only in the middle of August, when he had the pin in his shoulder removed, that Howley could at last start to look to the future and make plans. "It was then that I decided to stop dwelling on the past and my bad luck, and to become the new Rob Howley. After all, I've got so much to look forward to."

Indeed he has. Hoping to make his return for the Harlequins' European Cup match in early October, Howley then aims to get back into the Welsh team for the New Zealand fixture in November, the Five Nations' Championship and next summer's Welsh tour to South Africa, which may finally see his delayed clash with Van der Westhuizen.

"Then, further ahead, there's the 1999 World Cup, and the 2001 Lions tour to Australia and New Zealand, which I fully intend to be on," he promises. "I've started training again and I intend to work my balls off to get back to where I was."

That last statement was said with bags of conviction, as much to himself as to me. Rob Howley still feels angry, upset and wounded by his ill luck this summer, but my bet is that other teams will, over the course of the next year or two, be made to pay.

"Hey, I'm all right now," he reassured me as he set off for training. "It been really tough, but there's nothing I can do about it now except get on with my life, and with my rugby."

And that's exactly what he's going to do.