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FEATURE Gatland needs a catalyst to start the Wales fightback or the game faces a stark future

Gatland needs a catalyst to start the Wales fightback or the game faces a stark future
2 weeks ago

As an antipodean, Warren Gatland must feel the call of home, Waikato, more strongly than usual right now. Hunkered down in Sydney, out of the glare of Welsh rugby’s internecine politicking, he must feel strangely at ease.

Like the politician he has become, 35 years after starting his coaching journey at Galwegians, he has set out his simple mandate; to prepare Wales for a tilt at the 2027 Rugby World Cup. Development is a watchword he has been repeating ad nauseum since returning to Wales in January 2023. He has stressed that performances trump results – which is a good job, because Wales have lost their last seven Tests.

Preparing for the next World Cup was the well-worn coaching trope used by Eddie Jones as England dramatically imploded on his watch. That line can only take you so far, however, and sure enough, eight months before the 2023 World Cup, the irascible, authoritarian coach was hounded out of Twickenham quicker than he could say, ‘ah mate’.

Gatland has credit in the bank after 140 Tests, three Grand Slams and the very public backing of his new CEO Abi Tierney. Hell, he even has gates named after him. His power base has firm foundations in South Wales. Certainly, Gatland has been afforded more rope than his predecessor Wayne Pivac in his second coming, but deep down he knows the Welsh public need hope to cling onto sooner rather than later. Indeed, this weekend, there may well be more interest in what happens in Dusseldorf where Welsh sports fans will England’s football team to win…or more likely lose, than what unfolds 12,000 miles away. That is a concern.

Wales squad
A young Welsh squad prepares to go toe-to-toe with the Wallabies (Photo by DAVID GRAY/Getty Images)

While fans rage against the dying light of Welsh rugby, Gatland and Tierney can rest easy – at least people care, but when that anger subsides you start to worry. Apathy is a revenue killer, and when Tierney announced there was a £35m funding gap over the next five years, the one thing they can ill afford is empty seats at the Principality Stadium. Despite the slogan, ‘One Wales – rugby means more’, aping Liverpool’s 2019 campaign, ‘This Means More’, if Wales don’t start delivering on the field, then talk of cutting a region could become a necessity rather than an option.

The Welsh players are, in effect, playing for their livelihoods this summer and if that isn’t a motivation to pick themselves up from the canvas, then gawd help us. So, to return to Gatland in Sydney, there is quite a bit resting on this three-fixture, two Test tour. A dead rubber it is not.

So where are Wales? Well after a first whitewash since 2003, and just one win in 10 Six Nations games since Gatland returned, they’re ostensibly at rock bottom, with nothing to lose.

In many ways, Australia are staring down the same barrel of a financial abyss and public indifference that worries rugby’s stakeholders far beyond their shores, with a Lions tour and a men’s and women’s World Cup scheduled to take place there over the next five years. Gatland and Joe Schmidt, who don’t seem like natural bedfellows, may have more in common than they think if they meet up for a glass of New South Wales’ finest chardonnay in the coming days.

So where are Wales? Well after a first whitewash since 2003, and just one win in 10 Six Nations games since Gatland returned, they’re ostensibly at rock bottom, with nothing to lose. In fairness to Gatland, his team selection for the first Test is bold. Archie Griffin, Bath’s fourth choice tighthead – who was schooled in Australia – is selected for his first start, with a host of tightheads unavailable for selection. Christ Tshiunza, who is yet to set alight to his stop-start Test career packs down with his Exeter Chiefs and U20 buddy, Dafydd Jenkins.

Mason Grady
Mason Grady showed against Italy that he can cause defences myriad problems if he believes in himself.(Photo Ian Cook – Getty Images)

In the backline, Ben Thomas, who has looked a class act with Cardiff this season at 12 – and has only one start with a No 10 on his back in black and blue this campaign – starts in Wales’ problem position. A tall order by anyone’s estimation. Mason Grady, who is yet to punch is considerable 106kg weight at Test level is given another chance to prove to Gatland that he is Jamie Roberts reincarnated at inside-centre and Owen Watkin, who is yet to show the mien of a Test match animal after 39 caps, joins him in midfield. Experimentation away from the Welsh goldfish bowl is the order of the day.

Interestingly, Nick Tompkins, on the bench in Sydney, alluded to going ‘back to our roots’, of having a style of play Wales could hang their hat on, much like the Gatland sides of yesteryear. The challenge for Wales is imposing that simplified gameplan on a fresh-faced Wallaby side intent on disrupting any red-shirted fluidity.

Wales will always produce talent and should prosper, given the right pathway and strategic direction. Sadly this has been woefully lacking in recent years.

There are signs of promise, however. The seedlings of a Welsh side that, in time, can trade blows with the world’s elite. Injury-free, Dewi Lake looks like he has the physicality and leadership qualities to shine for a decade at Test level, and while Taulupe Faletau ponders the long road back, and Jac Morgan nurses his hamstring back in Wales, a backrow of Taine Plumtree, Aaron Wainwright and Tommy Reffell has pleasing balance and age-profile to it. In the back-three, Liam Williams brings his familiar blend of fire and ice to the backfield, while guiding Josh Hathaway through his first Wales appearance.

It would quicken the pulse further if Regan Grace can get some minutes against the Queensland Reds to help Wales recover from the devastating loss of Louis Rees-Zammit and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso in a matter of days in January.

As Wales’ U20s have shown in South Africa – it’s only a matter of time until Morgan Morse and Ryan Woodman are putting heat on the current Wales backrow – Wales will always produce talent and should prosper, given the right pathway and strategic direction. Sadly this has been woefully lacking in recent years. This writer believes they have the wherewithal to dine back at rugby’s top table within years, not decades. But it won’t be easy.

Wales v Australia
Wales inflicted a humiliating defeat on Australia nine months ago but much has changed personnel-wise(Photo Adam Pretty – Getty Images)

Gatland is as wily as they come but the public fallings out with the likes of Rhys Carre and Sam Parry have been damaging. Manageable when you’re winning but bad PR when you can’t catch a break. The court of public opinion has veered from #InGatlandWeTrust’ to #Gatlandout in social media’s fickle swingometer but some salvation could coming in the shape of the Lions, which generally awakens Welsh rugby from its torpor. Yet time is pressing. The comeback has to start somewhere and the Allianz Stadium would be a good place to start. A first win on Australian soil against the Wallabies since 1969? Possibly. For the future of Welsh rugby, a firestarter is needed.

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Comments

6 Comments
B
Bull Shark 14 days ago

If I was on the welsh rugby board - I’d be asking: should we not be targeting the 6N ahead of the 2027 World Cup?

It’s something Wales has done successfully in the past and, I’d argue, Gatland should be aiming to achieve before the World Cup. Or else Gatland has himself nothing but a cushy job until the end of the World Cup - which is nice for him.

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SteveD 14 days ago

As an Englishman who lives in Cape Town (for the moment, until my wife decides to move back again) but is a Bok supporter who also supports Wales, it is disheartening to see how bad things are in a fantastic rugby country like the latter. My solution? For a start, get rid of Gatland and then sort out the politics. Job done. The former has had his day. If he ever really had one.

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Barry 17 days ago

Scary times for Wales and a lesson to any other union in how NOT to conduct their affairs. I’ve sympathy for their long suffering fans but the game has been run into the ground over there.

The seniors will be propping up the 6N for the rest of the decade, their U20’s are unremarkable and their club teams offer nothing. They’d struggle to improve things with a blank cheque but they have to navigate this within a tight budget now and salary caps across their national contracts.

If Gatland can make them in anyway competitive again it would eclipse most of his previous achievements with them.

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Rob 17 days ago

The Lions won’t be a source of comfort I suspect, now that the Welsh head coach is no longer coaching the lions I doubt they’ll see anywhere near the same level of representation they’ve enjoyed on the last few tours. Obviously things will change between now and 2025 with injury and form but right now you’d have to say of this current wales team it’s hard to see any of them touring. In the front row only Lake stands out but he’s up against the likes of Theo Dan, Ronan Kelleher and Ewan Ashman as you’d imagine Dan Sheehan and Jamie George are nailed on currently. In the second row only Dafyd Jenkins stands out but again he’s up against huge Irish and English quality in the second row never mind the Scot’s. A lot of people have been making the case for Jac Morgan to go and Captain the tour and I could see him making the squad but he hasn’t really impressed me near the extent of the current form of Rory Darge or Sam Underhill. 9 and 10 are abysmal, no chance there. I could see Tompkins making the cut at centre but again there’s huge quality at centre in Ireland and Scotland. Rio Dyer is the only back three right now that could make the squad but does he fit Andy Farrells ideal in a winger?
It’s all speculation at the end of the day but the Lions could prove to be the final knife in the heart of the Welsh rugby public as opposed to the saviour of their moral.

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