Rob Howley is in lockdown at home in Wales these days, thanks to recent heightened COVID-19 restrictions.
But the former Wales star scrum half and coach sees a brighter future. And for the first time in a while, it involves a return to rugby after serving a high-profile suspension for betting.
“I’ve been in lockdown more than most. It’s been a challenging 12 months for both myself and the family,” said Howley, who is married with two daughters aged 18 and 21. “We feel we’re a much stronger family. And I feel I’m a better person, a better coach having gone through the last 12 months.”
The 49-year-old Howley, whose coaching career was derailed by a betting scandal on the eve of last year’s World Cup in Japan, has been hired on a three-year contract as senior assistant coach for the Canadian national men’s team. He will also serve as a consultant to the Toronto Arrows of Major League Rugby.
“It’s good to be back in the saddle,” Howley said. "I’ve missed it. I love the game. I’m very passionate about the game. And I look forward to the next three years, hopefully adding some of the value obviously I’ve experienced over the last 12 years of coaching international rugby with both Wales and the British and Irish Lions.
“I’m looking forward more importantly to working with both the Rugby Canada staff and the Toronto Arrows staff.”
His connection to Canada comes through Canada coach Kingsley Jones, a former Wales captain who played nine of his 10 tests alongside Howley and toured extensively with him.
“A world-class coach,” Jones said.
“We go back ... Kingsley is one of the good people from Wales,” Howley said. “There’s many of them and he’s one of them.”
“He’s a very astute rugby coach,” Howley added. “He’s well-respected in the game.”
Howley was banned from the sport for 18 months — with nine months suspended — last December for betting on matches, including Wales games. Howley, Wales’s attack coach at the time, was sent home from Japan six days before Wales’s opening World Cup match in September, 2019.
The disciplinary panel overseeing his case said the betting was in part triggered by the death of his sister. Howley did not profit from the bets, instead losing some £4,000 ($6,860).
The suspension, which was backdated to September when he left his Wales post, reportedly cost Howley the head coaching job with Italy. He was also reportedly linked to a club job with England’s Gloucester.
“I was honest throughout the investigation. I put my hand up,” said Howley, who issued a pubic apology and sought professional help over the betting. “We make mistakes and I certainly learned from my mistakes. There are reasons behind my behaviour. I just wish I had only spoken up many months before. Unfortunately I didn’t and I paid a high price.”
“Thankfully I’ve come out the other end,” he added.
Pandemic permitting, Howley will likely be in Canada in late January or February. He is already working with Canadian and Arrows officials via video-conferencing.
He is looking forward to working with a group of committed players, with a goal of helping them make the 2023 World Cup.
“Certainly the players I know who have worn the Canada jersey, they wear it with pride and passion. They’ll run through a brick wall for you. I’m expecting no different.”
Rugby Canada, World Rugby, the Arrows and a group of donors banded together to bring Howley to Canada.
“There were a lot of moving parts,” said Mark Winokur, the Arrows' chief operating officer and general manager.
“But at the end of the day, we’re very happy to have somebody who coached the British Lions and Wales being able to work with us,” he added.
Born in Bridgend, Howley won 59 caps for Wales, and was selected for British and Irish Lions tours in 1997 and 2001. On the club level, he played for Cardiff before joining England’s Wasps, where he won two Premiership titles and the 2004 Heineken Cup.
Howley captained Wales in a 33-19 win over Canada before 50,000 at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium in August, 1999, in a warmup match prior to the 1999 World Cup. The Canadian team that day included Gareth Rees and John Tait, who are now part of Rugby Canada’s front office and coaching staff, respectively.
On the coaching front, Howley began as an assistant coach with Cardiff before joining the staff of the Welsh national team. He was a member of the Wales coaching staff for the 2011 and 2015 World Cups and served as interim head coach, stepping in for Warren Gatland, in 2012-13 and 2016-17.
Howley won the Six Nations Championship in 2013 as head coach.
He also served as attack coach for the British and Irish Lions for the 2009 tour of South Africa, the 2013 tour to Australia and the 2017 tour to New Zealand.