TOKYO (Reuters) - The departure of Wales assistant coach Rob Howley from the Rugby World Cup over a possible breach of rules governing gambling in the sport could ultimately bring the team closer together, head coach Warren Gatland said on Wednesday.
Gatland told a news conference in Fukuoka that he was still shocked at exit of his right-hand man and sometimes replacement in 11 years as Wales coach, which was announced by the Wales Rugby Union (WRU) late on Tuesday.
Chief Executive Martyn Phillips told reporters the WRU had received a tip-off from the integrity unit of an online betting company last Wednesday and more detailed information on Friday before informing World Rugby.
The former Wales skipper departed on Monday only a few hours after the squad arrived in Japan and now faces a formal probe into the allegation that he breached the regulation that forbids those involved in the game from gambling on matches.
“We got a shock the other day. It took us a bit of time for it to sink in,” Gatland said.
“You have to deal with adversity at times. You lose key players at times and have to respond to that.”
“I have to say, the players in the last 24 hours have really stepped up and been incredibly responsible and resilient. Sometimes that brings teams closer together.”
Former Wales flyhalf Stephen Jones will step into the role of attack coach and is expected to arrive in Japan on Thursday, well in time for the start of the Pool D campaign against Georgia in Toyota on Monday.
“We have had some challenges, but having (had) a chat to Stephen, he knows what we do,” Gatland added.
“I’m sure the coaches and players will give him as much support as possible and I think he’ll come in and potentially add to the environment. It’s about turning a difficult situation into a positive.”
Six Nations champions Wales arrived in Japan as one of the pre-tournament favourites after recently topping the world rankings for the first time.
Howley, 48, has been attack coach since Gatland took the reins in 2008 and was placed in the top job in a caretaker role when the New Zealander led the British and Irish Lions on their 2017 tour.
Like Gatland, he was set to leave his post after the World Cup and had been linked to the top job with the Italy team. He could face a punishment as severe as a lifetime ban from rugby if the allegations prove founded.
“At the moment these are allegations,” Gatland said. “Obviously Rob was devastated by these allegations. That’s all I can say on that.”
World Rugby earlier released a statement supporting the WRU’s proactivity on the matter and Phillips said the body had confidence in the processes put in place to prevent gambling by players and coaches.
“We do respond well to difficult situations,” said Gatland, adding that it was a “Welsh trait”.
“We know there will be speculation and criticism in the next 24 hours. We have to deal with that and stay focused. Hopefully rugby is what does the talking.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney; Editing by Ian Ransom and David Evans