Covering the Wales rugby side is never dull, but the start of the team’s World Cup campaign in Japan saw them breach already lofty standards of controversy.
Warren Gatland’s side landed in Japan on Thursday, September 12 and their first week saw 15,000 delirious fans watch them train in Kitakyushu before the alleged betting scandal surrounding attack coach Rob Howley exploded into life. Howley was promptly sent home pending an investigation.
So much for a quiet start!
Only four newspaper journalists have been with Wales since the start of their tournament and those in attendance in Kitakyushu were in agreement that they had not seen anything quite like it.
Welsh rugby is no stranger to an off-the-field debacle. Indeed, you only have to go back to this year’s Six Nations and February in particular for the last ruckus.
At that time the proposed merger of the country’s two best teams – Scarlets and Ospreys – was leaked and then subsequently abandoned such was its divisiveness.
Gatland and his players put that debacle to one side to go on and win the Grand Slam and did a similarly good job in circling the wagons after Howley’s enforced departure.
Wales brushed aside Georgia 43-14 in their opening-round win and scored six tries in the process.
Now Australia – an altogether tougher beast – lie in wait.
Having covered the Wales team for the last six years I’ve got used to writing as much about the action off the field as on it whether that be financial troubles, potential mergers, stadium debts, player rebellion, or boardroom politics. Never, though, have I seen a week quite like Kitakyushu.
On arrival in Japan, Wales headed to the southern city where the Welsh Rugby Union had worked for two years to build a World Cup legacy project. It proved a hit on a gigantic scale.
The place was mad for Gatland’s side with Wales posters, flags and shirt everywhere you went. The support captain Alun Wyn Jones and his players had was nothing short of astonishing.
Surreal would be the best way to sum it all up.
On the Monday the team trained at Kitakyushu Stadium and a full house turned out to watch Gatland put them through their paces. The locals sang Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau and Calon Lan – faultlessly by the way – and the feeling at that stage was that Wales had everyone back at home and large parts of Japan behind them.
Behind the scenes the chaos had begun. The WRU had been made aware of Howley’s alleged breach of World Rugby’s regulation six. In his case the breach is of betting rules.
The evening following that open training session – which one journalist of more than 25 years experience said was the most remarkable thing he’d seen in his career to date – Wales’ senior players found out Howley would be going home.
Just under a day later the news came out and all hell broke loose.
WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips and head coach Gatland fronted the media to explain the situation. Former Wales fly-half Stephen Jones was parachuted in as emergency attack coach.
The few media who had made the effort to come to Kitakyushu descended into meltdown – myself included – as the Howley news broke at 1am Japanese time.
There was little sleep for the next few days. Journalists don’t always lead the healthiest of lifestyles on the road, but such was the nature of the emergency situation surrounding Howley that the local corner shop became the only and necessary source of sustenance.
The 27th floor of the Wales team hotel in Kitakyushu served as a mobile office. The views of the Japanese port town were sublime, the workload intense.
There had not been a moment to breathe, not for the Wales players or management, or the travelling media. The travelling Welsh media nicknamed the Howley situation ‘The Storm.’ It was certainly that.
Wales – as they had done in the Six Nations – had to put the storm behind them and that they did on arriving in Toyota. Georgia were brushed aside in convincing fashion and with a bonus point secured before half-time.
The second period wasn’t quite as good, but the men in red are now up and running and have momentum, a sense of resilience, and confidence behind them.
Will it be enough to beat Australia tomorrow?
In fairness to the Wales hierarchy they fronted up to the Howley situation and acted quickly. They had little choice.
Still, Gatland, his coaching staff, and his players have responded to their latest problem in fine fashion. They have been talkative with the media around their team hotels in Kitakyushu, Toyota and Tokyo and willing to engage in conversation.
That is not to be sniffed at given all that has gone on in their World Cup to date.
On Thursday, Gatland invited the travelling Welsh media – which has thronged since the team’s arrival in Tokyo – for a drink at their team hotel. It was a classy touch and one appreciated by those journalists who have followed the team to all corners of the globe from Apia to Washington and Argentina to Japan in the last two years.
Wales did beat Australia the last time they met in November 2018. Prior to that the southern hemisphere giants had won 13 in a row, a run dating back to 2008.
Over the course of the last 14 matches, the average difference between the teams has been just seven points. Another close encounter is expected.
Michael Cheika has dropped Kurtley Beale, Nic White and Christian Lealiifano and Wallaby journalists sense a degree of panic. Gatland will thrive on any sense of weakness his team can exploit.
It will be a huge, huge game.
Both teams are likely to progress to the quarter-finals regardless, but a Wales win would give them priceless and potentially World Cup-defining confidence and momentum.
It has been a whirlwind of a tournament to date, but there is also a feeling Wales could yet go on and do something special.
Whatever happens, it is unlikely to be tedious. It never is with Wales.