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FEATURE Gatland faces tricky questions after Wales' Six Nations trauma

Gatland faces tricky questions after Wales' Six Nations trauma
4 months ago

Messaging matters – it really does. Not a lifetime ago, a candidate vying for votes in a UK general election sent out a leaflet vowing his party would spend £100 billion “boosting renewable energy and insulting every home.”

The man might have performed a shade better in the subsequent poll if he’d pledged his party would insulate those houses, but no matter.

By and large during the Six Nations that’s just finished, Warren Gatland could be pleased with the way he got his points across. He rarely failed to remind people his L-plate Wales side were on a journey while also stressing that better times were ahead, even saying at one point he felt “they’re going to be a bloody good team moving forward”.

Jam tomorrow – not exactly a guaranteed sell to the masses, but, still, the words didn’t fall on deaf ears, with plenty prepared to accept the time was right for a major rebuild, one that would take time to yield the desired results.

Lorenzo Pani
Wales’ dismal Six Nations campaign ended with a dispiriting home defeat by Italy (Photo Warren Little/Getty Images)

It was a shade surprising, then, that the head coach offered his resignation immediately after his side completed their campaign, dismal though it was. Gatland has never truly seemed a man to quit while he’s behind.

A former hooker who kept pushing Sean Fitzpatrick for his place in New Zealand’s Test team, refusing to throw in the towel despite his rival being arguably the greatest No. 2 in the history of the sport, the man from Hamilton has long appeared the type to stay in the fight however great the odds stacked against him.

There again, Welsh rugby can do strange things to the man in charge of the national team. Graham Henry went from Redeemer to resignation in the space of a couple of years, later saying: “I got out before I died there. I hit the wall. People call it pressure, I just didn’t want to talk to people. I read books all day – is that a sign?”

Henry had grown frustrated by the system. Talent spread too thinly, not enough money. More than two decades on, the Welsh game still doesn’t have enough cash – perhaps it never will. And the production line of talent isn’t working as it should be.

How times have changed. One indifferent campaign used to be all it took in WRU towers for trigger fingers to get itchy and the national coach to start nervously scanning the situations vacant column in his local newspaper.

Still, not everyone saw Gatland’s resignation proposal to Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Abi Tierney coming. The governing body’s new boss turned it down, apparently saying: “Like hell, that’s the last thing we want you to do.”

How serious was the offer? Sam Warburton, someone who knows Gatland, having been his captain for five years, believes the move was ‘tactical’. “Gats isn’t dull,” Warburton told the BBC after Wales’ defeat by Italy in Cardiff.

“I think you’re probably thinking going towards the end of that game, ‘we’re zero from five’. He’s been involved with Wales for a long time, there’s going to be bullets fired. Even though Wales are in a development process, he knows that the press are going to come after him. I think it’s almost addressing the elephant in the room.

“It’s almost [a case of] rather than say nothing and have two or three weeks of speculation – ‘is Warren the right man to lead Wales, is he going to get sacked?’ – just say it in the first post-match press conference, so it means then that nothing’s going to be written about Warren losing his job.

“I think it was kind of premeditated and a tactical thing from Warren just to nip it in the bud, put a pin in that balloon and move on from that story.”

How times have changed. One indifferent campaign used to be all it took in WRU towers for trigger fingers to get itchy and the national coach to start nervously scanning the situations vacant column in his local newspaper.

John Kirwan
Two heavy defeats by one of the greatest All Blacks sides in 1988 precipitated the exit of former Wales coach Tony Gray (Photo Russell Cheyne/Allsport via Getty Images)

Ask Tony Gray. He led Wales to a Triple Crown in 1988 before they came unstuck on tour against one of the greatest teams in Test rugby history, namely the New Zealand of Wayne Shelford, Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, the Whetton brothers, Richard Loe, Steve McDowall, John Kirwan, Joe Stanley, Warwick Taylor and Grant Fox.  Small armies would have run for the hills at the sight of that lot.

“Even when we were done and dusted, they would keep driving and want to score again and again,” the then Wales flanker David Bryant commented years later. Not so much a team from a different hemisphere, then, as a different planet.

But after Wales lost to them, Gray found himself surplus to requirements. The folly of the decision continues to echo down the years.

The north Walian didn’t lose nine out of 10 championship matches, Gatland’s record since he returned to the Wales coaching job. Gray just failed to oversee competitive performances against a world champion side of formidable speed, power, strength and mental and physical toughness.

Building for the 2027 World Cup is laudable, but the challenge of the Test game is to eke out results today while also keeping an eye on tomorrow. It isn’t an easy trick to pull off. 

That’s not to say Tierney should have responded to Gatland’s resignation offer by offering to drive the Kiwi straight to Heathrow to board the next flight to Waikato. For Gatland leaving at this point would not suddenly transform the national team’s fortunes.

Wales would still have a shortage of powerful Test-class scrummaging props and they still wouldn’t have a young fly-half who can both run play with authority and provide sparks of attacking quality. Their pack would still be short of hard-driving ball carriers and there would still be questions over the misfiring three-quarter-line.

The underfunded regions would still have their backs against the wall and the under-U20s would still be languishing in ordinariness, the odd notable exception aside.  So maybe Tierney made a fair call with her supposed “like hell” reply to Gatland.

That said, it won’t make the scrutiny go away for long, and nor should it, for while most accept the need to start bringing through a new generation of players, Test rugby is a results business and Wales losing game on game is not a scenario that will play out without significant questions being asked.

Sam Costelow
Young fly-half Sam Costelow struggled to impose much authority on Wales’ attacking game (Photo Ian Cook – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Building for the 2027 World Cup is laudable, but the challenge of the Test game is to eke out results today while also keeping an eye on tomorrow. It isn’t an easy trick to pull off. A first Welsh whitewash in 21 years, and only the fourth in the country’s history, suggests the current coaches were a long way from getting it right in the latest edition of the Six Nations. That’s a long way as in Pluto is a long way from Venus.

Could Gatland and Co have done more to lessen the trauma?  Those who subscribe to the idea that the most important game on the international scene is always the next one might believe experienced campaigners such as Nicky Smith and Sam Parry should have been involved in the squad. Instead, relative L-platers were given opportunities, some before properly proving themselves in regional rugby.

The scrum was unconvincing, but we’ll never know if Tom Botha could have been the answer. Perhaps not a prop who will pop up in the wide channels and offer a turnover threat at every breakdown, and he is not in the first flush of youth, but many will see him as a stronger scrummager than the tightheads Gatland has used over the past couple of months.

The point is that Test rugby is not exclusively about World Cups. A lot happens in between. Of course, it’s nice if the stars align and it all comes together for a successful appearance on the biggest stage. But the Six Nations matters, too, and so do summer and autumn internationals.

Whatever the thoughts on him, Wales could do worse than start plugging the experience deficit in their squad. For a start, the F troop of Faletau and Francis, Taulupe and Tom respectively, should be welcomed back with open arms if available.

What’s the situation with Ross Moriarty, who is still only 29? Others such as Liam Williams and Gareth Anscombe shouldn’t be ruled out on grounds of age. Having more players with miles on the clock in the set-up would give the next generation time to develop and allow them to learn valuable lessons. Otherwise, the road ahead could be bumpy in a way that makes even the 1990s look smooth by comparison.

The point is that Test rugby is not exclusively about World Cups. A lot happens in between. Of course, it’s nice if the stars align and it all comes together for a successful appearance on the biggest stage. But the Six Nations matters, too, and so do summer and autumn internationals.

Morgan Morse
Ospreys back-row has impressed for Wales U20s and appears to have a big future (Photo World Rugby via Getty Images)

There are glimmers of hope. Rob Howley watched Wales U20s beat Italy last Friday, and should have left with pages of his notebook crammed with positives about Morgan Morse, a player who continues to raise eyebrows. Before Wales played France U20s earlier this month, their kickers were practising during the captain’s run. Almost unconsciously, Morse picked up a ball and bisected the posts with a dropped-goal from around 40 metres, then walked away as if it was no big deal. Humble and talented in equal measure, he looks to have a big future.

The young Dragons back rower Ryan Woodman is powerful and has leadership qualities. Also, the Ospreys wing Keelan Giles and the Dragons utility back Angus O’Brien, a skilful player who can boot a ball miles and play at 10 and 15, are worth tracking at the very least. Is there a coach out there who can take Rhys Carre to the next level? Harri Ackerman and Louie Hennessey are promising young centres.

And if the 25-cap rule is scrapped, and his form merits it, maybe Joe Hawkins could come back into contention. He is a player who can pass smoothly off either hand, is powerful and has something that few other 12s in Welsh rugby seem to have, namely a kicking game.

But these are slivers of potential brightness only.

Should there be another cull of a regional team? Those quietly canvassing for such a move without explicitly saying as much should be brave enough to tell us which team should be done away with.

Let’s address Gatland’s apparent belief that the regions can compete on £4.5 million budgets next year. To do so, they will need to be extraordinarily efficient in every respect and enjoy huge good fortune with injuries.

Even then, the challenge will be an immense one. For, as a wise man once said: “The greatest performance-enhancing substance ever devised is money.” The folding stuff brings better players, better coaches, better facilities, better medical back-up. Less of it invariably impacts performance negatively.

Should there be another cull of a regional team? Those quietly canvassing for such a move without explicitly saying as much should be brave enough to tell us which team should be done away with. Or are we saying there should be a complete reset with a trio of new teams set up, perhaps West, East and North? We should be told, but quite how any change along those lines would play out with an already disillusioned Welsh rugby public remains shrouded in uncertainty.

Dodging the showers in a Valleys town on Tuesday morning, this writer bumped into a seasoned rugby watcher less than impressed with how events have panned out for Wales this term. “Every coach wants people to have patience, and most people in Wales have been patient. But the performance against Italy was so dire it’s hard to have confidence that things will get better for a while yet,” the man said.

Gatland’s view? “I honestly do see light at the end of the tunnel,” he said after the Italy debacle.

The worry is that light might yet be an onrushing train.  Concerning times, indeed.

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Comments

2 Comments
J
John 125 days ago

Is Gatland’s time up? If not, how long should he be given? This season was supposedly the easier fixture list with 3 home games against the teams in blue. Next year it’s just two, against Ireland and england respectively. Another wooden spoon isn’t out of the question. Indeed, it’s currently the most probable outcome.

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