WRU v Robert Howley – preserving the integrity of the game
On 11 December 2019 Robert Howley, the former Wales rugby team’s assistant coach, was banned from rugby for 18 months by a Judicial Committee of the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU), chaired by Sir Wyn Williams, after falling foul of the World Rugby rules on gambling.
The investigation into Mr Howley commenced when an employee of Betway contacted the WRU. Mr Howley was confronted with the investigation in September 2019, at the Welsh rugby team’s Japanese base, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup. He immediately admitted that he had been betting in breach of the regulations. The very next day he was on a flight back from Japan.
Mr Howley admitted making 363 prohibited bets on rugby between 14 November 2015 – 7 September 2019. This included betting on 24 games involving Wales or Welsh players and on 2 occasions betting on specific Welsh players to score.
Regulation 6 of the World Rugby’s rules governing gambling and anti-corruption are expressly incorporated into the WRU’s own Code of Conduct. Its primary aim was described as preserving the “fundamental character of sporting competition as an honest test of skill and ability and the prevention of corrupt gambling practices from undermining the integrity of the game of rugby.”
Regulation 6.3.1 reads: “No connected person shall, directly or indirectly, bet and/or attempt to bet on the outcome or any aspect of any connected event and/or receive and/or attempt to receive part or all of the proceeds of any such bet and/or any other benefit in relation to a bet.”
A “connected person” is defined as “…any coach, trainer, selector…engaged in relation to the Game by a Union or its National Representative Team”
A “Connected Event” is: “An Event with which a Connected Person and/or the National Representative Team and/or Union…is involved with, connected to or engaged with.”
The regulations create two separate offences but the WRU chose to charge Mr Howley with a single charge of “Betting on the outcome and/or any aspect of an event by a Connected Person and receiving part or all of the proceeds of such Betting”, departing from the terminology used in the regulation.
The particulars of the charge read:
“During the period of 13th November 2015 and 7th September 2019, as the Welsh Rugby Union National Squad Assistant Coach, you placed 364 bets on rugby union, featuring 1,163 matches in total…and received the proceeds (or part of the proceeds) of the successful bets.”
Every bet Mr Howley placed on a rugby match (subsequently reduced to 363) was a breach of the regulations.
Throughout the investigation Mr Howley accepted both that he had placed the bets in question and that he knew that he was in breach of the regulations by betting on rugby matches, including matches involving Wales. He explained that his gambling had been triggered by the death of his sister in 2011. He informed the WRU that both his work mobile and email account were used to make the bets.
One interesting aspect of the case was the use by the WRU of Regulation 6.7.3 (wrongly described in the decision as 6.7.5), which allows the Anti-Corruption Officer to make a written demand for the production of copies or access to all records relating to the breach, which includes, but is not limited to bank statements, phone and email records and even computer hard drives. There is, of course, no power of compulsion under the Regulation, but any refusal to comply would likely have a serious and detrimental effect on the probability of successfully defending any alleged offence and may also lead to an increase in any sanction imposed.
Mr Howley was served with, and complied with, a “written demand” under Regulation 6.7.3 and made available his bank statements, his betting account details and electronic devices including a WRU laptop and a WRU mobile phone, as well as other personal devices. Examination of those devices failed to discover any material incriminating Mr Howley to any greater extent than the admissions he had already made.
An investigation, described as “wide ranging”, found no evidence of match-fixing or a broader corrupt scheme. The most serious breaches involved the placing of two bets upon an individual in his own Welsh team to score the first try – this could be influenced by a coach in setting the order of plays or “strike moves” in a game which could increase the probability of a particular individual scoring. It was found that neither of the players (who were not named) had any knowledge of the bets. The WRU accepted that Mr Howley’s breach was limited to prohibited gambling and his actions had not caused any damage to the commercial value, and/or the public interest in any match or tournament, nor had they affected the result of any match. The bets themselves were often low in value and in a period of 5 years Mr Howley had lost approximately £4,000.
The regulations provide a detailed approach to sanction in such cases, including a starting point, sentencing range, aggravating features and mitigating features. The range applicable to Mr Howley’s case was 6 months to 5 years.
The only aggravating feature present was the WRU’s contention that Mr Howley’s breach involved a “high degree of fault”. Ultimately, the Committee agreed that Mr Howley’s degree of fault was high, in spite of the mitigating features, because he was “fully aware of his duties and responsibilities” under the Regulations, was part of the senior management of the national squad, and placed a very significant number of bets over the course of five years. The Committee added that:
“While we are prepared to accept that the trigger for Mr Howley’s betting on sporting events has its seeds in personal family tragedy it is much more difficult to understand why he chose to bet on rugby which he knew was prohibited rather than other sports exclusively which, of course, was perfectly permissible (Paragraph 33)”
The Committee considered that there were a long list of mitigating features in this case, including:
- Early admissions by Mr Howley;
- His “deep felt and genuine remorse”;
- His “exemplary character and an exemplary disciplinary record (both as a player and coach)”, supported by “very powerful” evidence from Sir Ian McGeechan, Warren Gatland and current Welsh international Jonathan Davies;
- There was no damage to the commercial value and/or the public interest in any match or tournament;
- The breach did not affect the result of any match;
- Mr Howley had already been suspended since September;
- Mr Howley made no gain;
- There was “no suggestion of dishonesty or misuse of confidential information”;
- There had been significant press intrusion upon his family;
- Mr Howley had already sought help from a psychologist who had diagnosed the trigger for his betting as a family tragedy; and
- Mr Howley had since refrained from betting.
In light of all of the above, the committee decided that an 18-month ban was “proper and proportionate” in order to ensure public confidence both in the integrity of sport and its judicial processes.
A plea was made on behalf of Mr Howley to suspend the operation of all or part of the ban, citing the fact that he had already served three months, missed out on the World Cup and the likely adverse impact on his wellbeing of further time away from rugby.
There is no express provision in the Regulations to suspend a sanction, nor in World Rugby’s disciplinary and judicial regulations (Regulation 18). However, they do not expressly exclude the power.
Regulation 18.6.1 does give the Committee the power to “impose such sanction as it thinks fit”. The Committee concluded that this provided it with a broad discretion which could be read into Regulation 6. As a result, the Committee concluded that it did have the power to suspend a sanction, or in this case part of a sanction.
Ultimately, the Committee did not consider it appropriate to suspend the whole of the ban. Instead, nine months of the ban was suspended for two years. The suspension was backdated to September 2019, the date that Mr Howley was sent home from Japan. He will be permitted to return to rugby on 16 June 2020.
The case highlights the cooperation and contact that now exists between many of the leading betting companies and sports governing bodies, as well as the powers that the governing bodies have given themselves to investigate any such alleged offending. The ability to gamble so easily, combined with the amount of free-time that many athletes have is a recipe for breaches of the various betting regulations. Mr Howley is not the first sportsperson or coach to have committed a breach and it is unlikely that he will be the last.
Jonathan Kinnear QC has chaired and appeared at numerous RFU Disciplinary panels over the last 15 years. He is a coach at Wimbledon RFC and a Vice-President of Surrey Rugby.
Nikita McNeill practices in both criminal matters and regulatory matters of all kinds, including prosecuting matters on behalf of the FA.