The Wales head coach clearly feels for Howley, a standout scrumhalf who captained Wales 22 times in 59 appearances and played for the British and Irish Lions. The headlines have been a distraction ahead of Wales' opening match against Georgia on Monday, but Gatland is concerned more about Howley's well-being.
Many others are, too. "A number of players and staff have reached out to Rob. The biggest thing we can do is offer him as much support as we can," Gatland was quoted as saying. "We can't change what has happened, but it is important we do provide support."
The 48-year-old Howley, who was due to leave his position after the tournament, returned to Wales to help an investigation relating to betting on rugby union. "It's been tough, but you have to draw a line in the sand and concentrate on what your job and your role is," Gatland said. "There are a lot of good people out there who have reached out to offer him support. That is pleasing."
But there's also a limit to how much sympathy the Wales squad can offer him. For Wales has a lot to think about on the pitch, too, and a reputation to uphold as the Six Nations Grand Slam winner. After a disappointing exit at the quarterfinal stage four years ago, and a narrow semifinal loss to France in 2011 skewered by influential flanker Sam Warburton's controversial early red card, Wales has unfinished business at the World Cup.
Such zeal is a must, particularly considering Wales faces two-time champion Australia six days after playing Georgia. "There was a little bit of edge and niggle at training (on Saturday). To me, that's always a good sign," Gatland said. "We are Grand Slam champions, had 14 games in a row unbeaten and that was because of the way we prepared, mentally how tough we were, our game management."
Gatland wants the Australian players to fear Wales, rather than the other way around. When "everything is right we're a tough team to beat and can beat anyone," he said. "We've worked incredibly hard to get to where we are and achieve what we've achieved in the last few years. We need to make sure we go out and give our best at this World Cup."
Ruthlessness from Gatland may not be pleasant for those on the receiving end, but it is crucial in getting the players' minds focused as sharply as possible. That's likely to be the only way to challenge the likes of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and England for the trophy itself.
So No. 8 Ross Moriarty, who has 34 test caps, sits on the bench at Toyota Stadium. Instead, the backrow against Georgia will be 21-year-old World Cup debutant Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi.
Moriarty was upset by Gatland's call. Then he snapped out of it and realized less experienced players needed him to set an example. "I have to say that from the initial disappointment and the chat we had, he's turned that around," Gatland said. "He's been positive, vocal at training and he's been what you expect of someone who knows they are disappointed. But (who) also knows what their role is in the team, which is to help the side prepare. That's all I can ask as a coach."
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