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Six Nations 2019: Wales

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Six Nations 2019: Wales with much to play for in Gatland's long goodbye

Wales’ longest-serving and most successful coach is in the home straight of his time in the job.

After 12 years, Warren Gatland will stand down after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Gatland’s reign has seen Wales win two Grand Slams and reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, while the Kiwi has also led the British and Irish Lions on two tours.

When Wales kick off the Six Nations in Paris on February 1, Gatland begins a long goodbye that will finish in Japan, when he will hand over to successor Wayne Pivac.

We pick out some of the highlights of Gatland’s time in charge and assess his chances of finishing with a flourish.

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GRAND SLAM WINNERS

Wales had ended their long wait for a Grand Slam three years prior to Gatland’s first Six Nations in the job, winning the championship in 2005 to complete a clean sweep for the first time since 1978. But it did not take Gatland long to repeat that feat after he was brought in to replace Gareth Jenkins, who had been dismissed after Wales made a pool-stage exit at the 2007 World Cup. It was a success built on defence, with Wales conceding only two tries over the course of the championship, but one that reaped the benefits of the attacking talents of players like Shane Williams. A first Twickenham win over England since 1988 and a Triple Crown-clinching win in Dublin helped Wales on their way to a Grand Slam wrapped up against France in Cardiff.

WORLD CUP SEMI-FINALS AND ANOTHER CLEAN SWEEP

Given his predecessor’s failure at the previous tournament, Gatland did not have a particularly high marker to beat when he took his players home to New Zealand in 2011. However, it is safe to say Wales exceeded expectations as they came agonisingly close to reaching a World Cup final for the first time. Amid rising optimism, their bid for glory ended in painful fashion. After losing skipper Sam Warburton to a controversial red card in the 19th minute of a semi-final against France, Wales fought doggedly to stay in the game, only to be beaten 9-8. It was France’s turn to be on the receiving end of a one-point defeat as New Zealand won the trophy, before Wales emphatically underlined their credentials as the pick of the northern hemisphere sides by securing another Grand Slam in the 2012 Six Nations.

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LIONS LEADER

Gatland’s achievements with Wales have been impressive, but he also made a huge impact in two tours as the Lions coach. A host of his Wales team played starring roles in 2013 as the Lions beat Australia 2-1 and Gatland was then at the helm again for the ultimate test in 2017 – a tour of his homeland. The Lions lost two of their tour matches before the opening Test and were then beaten 30-15 in their first meeting with New Zealand. However, a stirring fightback followed, with the tourists edging the second Test 24-21 and then holding the All Blacks to the most dramatic of draws as the series reached a remarkable conclusion at Auckland’s Eden Park. Gatland now appears the leading candidate to lead the Lions for a third time in 2021 when they visit South Africa.

A TEAM IN FORM

Only 2018 Grand Slam winners Ireland boasted a better record than Wales last year among northern hemisphere teams. Gatland’s men won 10 out of 12 Tests, including a hugely encouraging clean sweep of their November internationals. Victories over Scotland, Australia and South Africa – together with a thrashing of Tonga – extended Wales’ winning streak to nine Tests, two short of their record run.

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THE PERFECT FINALE?

Wales face a stern test at the start of their Six Nations campaign, with a visit to France representing the first of three away fixtures in the championship. Intriguingly, their toughest match on paper comes on the final weekend as they host reigning champions Ireland. Given recent form, it is not unfeasible that both teams reach that contest unbeaten. Ireland are the clear favourites for the Six Nations and currently represent the leading European candidate for World Cup glory. However, Wales – third in the world rankings behind New Zealand and Joe Schmidt’s men – will surely be a force to be reckoned with if they make it to Japan with most of their leading players available. Gatland could yet enjoy a dream send-off to his distinguished reign.

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Six Nations 2019: Wales with much to play for in Gatland's long goodbye