Every now and then, during the course of a four-hour conversation, Rob Howley turns to a pile of handwritten notes.

Scribbled down on a dozen or so sheets of A4 paper, in blue ink, are his deepest and darkest thoughts. They are logged beside a series of dates from his uncomfortable and unspoken history.

Howley spent years running away from the past but last September it finally caught up with him. His battles with grief, gambling, death and his sister's alcoholism were laid inescapably bare. There was nowhere left to hide.

"Where the hell do I start?" he sighs, as his hands move towards his forehead, the tension palpable. Howley is more at ease talking rugby tactics or providing injury updates and he is about to freefall out of his comfort zone.

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He reaches for his bottle of water and, sitting under the blazing sun in his back garden, begins to talk through a sequence of life-changing events. They are raw and personal but he feels the need to share his story.

Rob Howley cops 18 month ban for betting scandal

"My sister, Karen, died in 2011," he begins. "She'd gone through some tough times. Very tough times. Depression, alcoholism, divorce, going missing and dealings with the police. After her divorce in 2010, she moved back in with our mum. There was a lot of emotional abuse. Mum was in her 60s at the time and she couldn't cope with it.

"I felt I had little option but to step in and relieve the pressure off my mum by finding Karen a place of her own. It was a safe haven where, I hoped, she would get her life back on track. I would visit every Wednesday on my day off, with my wife, Ceri, to check up on her. We wouldn't always get in but we always knew she was OK.

"One particular Wednesday, for some reason which I can't remember, we didn't visit. It was during the 2011 Six Nations, the Italy away week.

"Anyway, later that week I flew out to Rome for the Italy match and, on my return, I went to visit Karen on the Sunday. Her house was in darkness. Front door, locked. Back door, locked. There was no answer. She lived her life in darkness, often with her curtains closed, so this wasn't too unusual.

"With her ongoing issues, I had power of attorney, so on that Monday morning we went to the bank to check if her account had been used. It hadn't — and that was when the alarm bells started ringing.

Former Wales Rob Howley. Photo / Getty
Former Wales Rob Howley. Photo / Getty

"Her house was only half a mile from the bank so I rushed back again. There was a build-up of post in the letter box and one of the letters, in a red envelope, was a warning that she had missed her probation date. I was worried. She had gone missing before. I wanted to smash the window but mum told me not to, so I called the police.

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"The police broke into the house on the Tuesday morning, the 1st of March and she was inside... dead."

He pauses for another gulp of water. The blue skies above are picture perfect, striking a stark contrast to Howley's dark memories. Before he knows it, he is on to his second bottle. "I'd seen Karen the Sunday prior, in the front room of her house and we had spoken about her alcoholism," he continues. "It was the same conversation we'd had a number of times. There was anger about what she was doing to her family but, more importantly, to herself.

"Anybody living or involved with an alcoholic will understand how frustrating it is and the constant lies and deceit that go along with it. I must admit at times I found it very difficult to comprehend. I blamed myself for her death. If I'd seen her on that Wednesday, would she still be alive?

"There was a lot guilt, should haves, could haves. By putting her in that house, on her own, I created an environment for her to kill herself. Her alcoholism went from bad to worse. There's no known date of her death but it was sometime that week. She died of bronchopneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. My feeling was that I had driven my sister to her own grave.

"I had to go to identify her body at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend and I can't remember doing it. I was there but I wasn't present, if that makes sense.

"I blocked everything out. I'm task orientated and I used my work as my focus. We had a job to do — Ireland and France — and I used that to hide away from things. I never processed anything. I blocked it out completely."

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In the days after Karen's funeral, Howley quickly returned to work in a state of denial, unable to deal with his grief. He never revisited his sister's death.

Two World Cups passed by and Howley devoted all of his energy into his home and his job. The walls of his house are covered with family photographs from the years which followed — Wales tours, Lions tours, holidays, school balls — but there are no images of his sister. He felt a lot of responsibility for his niece and nephew, Nia and Lloyd. However, the memories of what happened were never discussed.

In November 2015, the time had come to sort out his sister's estate. It was intended to be a fairly straightforward process, yet it proved to be anything but. It reopened old wounds. Howley needed a release and this proved to be the beginning of his downfall.

"Myself and my mum were in charge of the estate for Lloyd and Nia, who were teenagers at the time and there were a few documents in the attic that needed to be passed to them," he says.

"I'd never opened them up before. All this paperwork was in a plastic Tesco bag with three red files in it. Electricity bills, utility bills, phone records, verbatim police statements of things I didn't know existed. Every little graphic detail. I knew about 60 per cent of my sister's history but the other 40 per cent I found out on that visit up to the attic. It just hit me. All that guilt and sadness from 2011 came back. It hit me even harder than it hit me the first time around.

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Rob Howley during a Lions training session in 2017. Photo / INPHO/Dan Sheridan
Rob Howley during a Lions training session in 2017. Photo / INPHO/Dan Sheridan

"I was angry with my mum for not telling me these things at the time, but then she was just trying to protect me. When Karen was alive, I would ask Mum if everything was OK and she'd say, 'Yes'. Suddenly it made sense why, during a police interview in 2011, the officer told me that, 'Karen was known to us'.

"I never brought that file down. I didn't tell anyone. I sat up in the attic for an hour and a half, reading it. I blamed myself all over again and I couldn't block it out. Seeing all of those things in writing, what my sister had been through: getting stopped by the police, drink driving, those sorts of things.

"For whatever reason — and I didn't really realise this at the time — I turned to betting. Betting on rugby. It gave me an escape. A reason to forget." His first bet was a single on the Top 14 side Stade Francais.

"It was all about escaping from my dark thoughts," he says. "It was never about the money. Never.

"They were part of a treble or a 17-fold. They'd often be linked in with 10 football results. It wasn't addictive behaviour. It was about escaping. A means of forgetting about the bad things and the experience of my sister.

"I placed 363 bets over four years. I knew I wasn't allowed to but the escapism took me to a different place. It was just at times when I felt alone, I guess. Being away in hotels was the hardest. I would often be first down for meetings and often last up to bed. I didn't like being in the hotel room on my own because there were no distractions.

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"When my thoughts went towards my sister, betting on rugby was an escapism that took me to a different space. So, yeah, that's what it was. It was wrong and I hold my hands up. I messed up. I lost £4,000 over four years, so I wasn't exactly good at it, was I? I was even using my work email address and phone. Pretty stupid, isn't it? If you don't laugh, you'll cry."

Hearing a chuckle of gallows humour, Ceri steps out of the kitchen with a plate of sandwiches. Howley's back garden is large enough for social distancing. His daughters, Megan and Rebecca, seize the opportunity to fetch the deckchairs to sunbathe in the 25C heat. There is no unease about the family being able to hear his story.

He moves on to how everything blew up in his face eight months ago when, on the eve of the World Cup, he was found out. Almost minute by minute, he recalls how his 12-year coaching career with Wales came to an end.

"It was important for me to write down the events," he says. "We'd arrived in Japan on the Wednesday night. We spent Friday and Saturday in Tokyo, before travelling to Kitakyushu on Sunday, September 15. We had a training walk through on Sunday afternoon in preparation for the Georgia game.

"At about 7pm, Gats [Warren Gatland] called a selection meeting in the bar and I went back up to the team room afterwards. I'd just put a couple of notes on the whiteboard and was doing some work on my laptop when a text came through. It was our team manager, Alan Phillips, aka Thumper, asking to having a beer, a nightcap, downstairs in the bar. It was about 10.30pm. I had some stuff to do so by the time I got down it was about 10.45.

"I went down in the lift from level 20, sat down and he said, 'What do you want?' Gatland was with him. Oblivious to what was about to come, I had half a lager and asked, 'Is everything OK?' Thumper said, 'Have you been betting on rugby?' Pardon? Gats asked the same thing and I said, 'Yeah, I have'. Thumper put his hands to his head and there was this silence.

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"Gats asked me how significant the amounts were and I told him there were some bets on Wales. By that point, Martyn Phillips and Julie Paterson, from the Welsh Rugby Union, were already flying over from Heathrow. Warren said, 'I think you're going to be sent home, Rob' and my first thoughts were my family.

"Two hours earlier, I'd been on the phone to Ceri and the girls planning for them to come out to Japan. You don't know exactly how a World Cup is going to pan out but I was confident we were going to finish top of the pool, so we'd planned around that scenario.

"I told Warren that I needed to go upstairs and make a phone call. I phoned Ceri and just said, 'Look, I've been betting on rugby'. It's a nine-hour difference and she was in Tesco at the time. I didn't go back downstairs that night because I knew what was coming.

"There was no way out. I sat at the end of the bed with my hands in my head, crying, realising the impact this would have on my friends and family.

"On the Monday, I fronted up and explained to various members of the group what was happening. I spoke to [captain] Alun Wyn Jones and [centre] Jonathan Davies first, then spoke to Dan Biggar later on in the evening. Jonathan just looked dumbstruck. I felt like I'd let everyone down. It was humiliating and embarrassing.

"It was so disappointing to go out that way. We'd been planning this tournament for years. As a coaching group, we'd been together for 12 years and, in my head, it felt like our time. We backed ourselves to beat Australia, France and South Africa. In my head, it was going to be a Wales v All Blacks final.

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"It couldn't have turned out much differently, could it?'

On his final night in Japan, the team management forced Howley downstairs to the hotel bar for a farewell drink. Dreams crushed. Bags packed. World Cup over. The next morning, he was on the first flight home. A 6,000-mile trip from Kitakyushu to Bridgend, via Tokyo and Heathrow. He uses one word to describe the journey: horrendous.

"My flight was eight o'clock on Tuesday morning," he says. "I took a sleeping pill but I hadn't slept much. I woke up at 5.30 and [head of physical performance] Bobby Stridgeon and Thumper were outside my door to check that I was OK. A Rugby World Cup 4x4 took me to the airport and I just thought, 'What the f*** have I done?' I took a flight from Kitakyushu to Tokyo and I could only take domestic luggage so I left everything else behind. It didn't take long to pack because I'd only been there four or five days.

"I'll never forget when I was in the air, coming in to land in Tokyo and I'd forgotten to turn my phone off. My mobile was in my pocket and there was a notification that I had been deleted from three team WhatsApp groups: squad, management, backs. I said to myself, 'You're on your own now, mate'.

"I almost missed my connection flight in Tokyo because the airport is so big. I was sweating. I was embarrassed. I was on my own. The WRU asked if I wanted someone to fly with me but I said no. I kept my head down and I wished I had a cap to wear. I wanted the time to process what had happened and think about what I was going to say to my family. It was the longest flight of my life.

"Thumper had organised a car to pick me up at Heathrow; a driver called Ashley. I came into Heathrow at 3.55pm and my phone went ballistic. The WRU wanted me to get home before they made an announcement but Julie Paterson got in touch and said, 'Sorry, the story is out'." The news played out as a national scandal. His face was being broadcast across TV sets on the six o'clock news before he had even made it home.

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With the public none the wiser about his history, Howley was seen as the fool busted for chasing a quick buck. 'When we were driving back from Heathrow, I had a text saying there might be some cameras outside my house,' he says.

"Ashley said there was a blanket in the boot and I should hide underneath it. He drove right up through the gates of my house and I got under this blanket so no one could see me. That was a low point. We got back at 6.50pm and everyone was waiting at home, including my mother and Ceri's parents.

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"Megan was crying, Rebecca was crying, Ceri was crying. I hugged them, told them I was sorry and that I'd made a mistake. I tried to explain but I couldn't. At that point in time, I didn't have any answers.'

Not only had Howley lost his sister, he had also lost his job and, seemingly, his reputation. What was the impact on his family? "Huge," he says, with his eyes glazing over. "It's a bit raw. My first thoughts were about the girls. I hadn't told Ceri about my rugby betting, so would she be able to trust me again? I'd hidden it all. We've been together for 28 years and I let her down. I let my family down… I let everybody down.

"It was a challenge. Megan was in her final year at Exeter University and Rebecca was doing her A Levels. What impact would this have on them? Megan in particular is very emotional and I'd seen her in tears at criticism of me in the past. I was humiliated and embarrassed. I thought, 'That's not me' but it was me because I did it. Ceri asked some tough questions: my feelings, values. I didn't know if she'd still love me."

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Ceri offers her own take: 'It wasn't that I didn't love you any more, Rob. We'd all invested into rugby and made sacrifices for you. The girls had come away with you on tours, made friends, spent long periods away from you. To find something out like that was unbelievable. A huge shock. It put so much pressure on the family.

Rob Howley during a press conference. Photo / INPHO/Billy Stickland
Rob Howley during a press conference. Photo / INPHO/Billy Stickland

"Imagine how the girls felt seeing this stuff about their dad on social media, having to explain everything to their friends. We had to figure out who our real friends were pretty quickly. I was working at the cafe and everyone knew what was going on. It was like going through some kind of trauma."

In the initial stages, Howley became reclusive. "I didn't want to go out for two and a half months," he says. "I couldn't face talking about it. I watched the World Cup on my own at home.

"I was worried that people would turn their backs on me but the messages I received from old friends and colleagues were really comforting. The support I had from Warren Gatland, Alan Phillips and the Welsh management was unbelievable. Gats's support was unwavering. If I had to pick someone to line me up against a wall and shoot me, it would be Warren Gatland because of how I let him down."

The investigation into Howley's betting was launched before his luggage had even returned home. "I wanted to get answers for my behaviour," he says. "I needed to for my own sake and my family's sake. I had the name of a clinical psychologist and I made an appointment prior to the start of the investigation. I saw him for three months. We used a lot of cognitive behavioural therapy to try to ascertain the reasoning behind my behaviour.

"I needed answers to why I was placing these bets. It came back to how I dealt with my sister's death. He concluded that it wasn't addictive behaviour — I wasn't waking up feeling the need to place bets. Instead, I was looking for an outlet to help cover up the reality of what happened.

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"After six or seven weeks of therapy, I was able to talk to my mum about the experiences I had with my sister. We'd never spoken about it before. The lasting image I always had of my sister was her police mugshot. She was 47 at the time but she looked like she was in her 60s. Horrible, gaunt, grey. She didn't look like my sister.

"The psychologist went back through the funeral, identifying the body, the day that I didn't turn up at her house and beyond.

"My father passed away with cancer in 2004 and I grieved him much earlier on because it was a long illness. With my sister, there were no conversations. The funeral was on Monday the 14th and I was back to work on the Tuesday morning. I had blocked it all out but with the psychologist I had what felt like a grieving process.

"By the end and to this day, the image I have is of Karen enjoying her sport, playing netball with a huge smile on her face. She played Welsh Schools Under-18s and U21s and she was head of PE at the school she taught at. She has GA on her back, goal attack, which is the position she played. I was able to talk about my sister in a way I'd never been able to. I was able to reach a point of closure."

Kobe, the family's eight-week-old miniature schnauzer, innocently bursts out of the kitchen to interrupt Howley's thoughts.

"He's brought a lot of love to the house,' he says, picking up the puppy.

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And that brings us to the future. New beginnings. The big red circle around June 16 on Howley's calendar. It is the date his suspension lifts and he is free to take up a new role in rugby. He was close to taking up a head coach role with Italy before life caved in on him but he is ready to go again.

"I want to get back involved in the game,' he says. 'Wasps reached out to me just before Christmas about working with Dai Young. I was conscious about how people would perceive what I'd done. What would they think? That phone call from [Wasps owner] Derek Richardson gave me a huge boost, reassuring me that I have a future in the game. I'm the same coach now as the coach that was part of a Grand Slam winning team.

"Given my experience of the last nine months — some self-reflection and self-awareness — I'd like to think it will benefit me as a coach. There is no anger or guilt left in me about my sister and I can reflect on her life in a positive way.

'What I've learned from this experience is that it's important to talk about feelings, instead of supressing them and hoping they'll go away. There's no shame or weakness in showing any emotional vulnerability.

"It's taken a huge, traumatic event for me to realise this and my outlook on life has changed as a result. I now feel at peace with myself and I'm no longer battling my demons, although there is not a day that goes by without thinking about Karen."