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FEATURE Wales and Warren Gatland seek radical new project

Wales and Warren Gatland seek radical new project
7 months ago

Sometimes, a mere rejig can do the trick, as rock band The Police demonstrated during their early days.

Formed in 1977 by the drummer Stuart Copeland, who wrote their first single Fall Out, they were not an immediate success, with their debut offering initially failing to chart. But after Sting took over the songwriting, they went on to have five number ones, three of them in the space of 10 months, en route to becoming one of the best-selling groups of all time.

What are we to think? Not since Clive Rowlands converted Gerald Davies from centre to wing during a 90-minute flight from Wellington to Auckland almost a decade before had a role switch proved so successful. 

But, sometimes, circumstances can demand even more radical action.  

Sometimes, a new build is required.

Dan Biggar
Dan Biggar is among a clutch of leading Wales players to retire in recent months (Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Rewind to rugby in 2002 on the western side of the River Severn and the Graham Henry era had run its course, a 54-10 Six Nations defeat by Ireland proving a shattering loss too far. Henry had become increasingly beaten and careworn, frustrated by a Welsh rugby structure which somehow managed to spread talent and finance as thinly as the butter on the Cratchit family’s toast. The man once feted as the Great Redeemer had grown tired of fighting seemingly never-ending battles for mere millimetres of progress.

His successor Steve Hansen declined to opt for short-term fixes. “He shot the patient,” wrote the journalist Angus Morrison for The New Zealand Herald. “Started from scratch. Dragged Welsh rugby – kicking and screaming the whole way – up by its bootlaces.”  

The pain was such that the screams could be heard from Llandudno to Llanelli, but within three years Wales had banked a Six Nations Grand Slam, albeit achieved the year after Hansen had returned to New Zealand.

Leon Brown is a specimen who looks capable of bench-pressing entire gyms

So what’s it to be for Warren Gatland?

The early signs are a fresh project could be on the agenda. Really, it has to be.

With Leigh Halfpenny set to follow Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb into Test retirement, and similar announcements on others possible over the next year, Wales are going to have to look to the next generation.

The game with the Barbarians in Cardiff on Saturday seems an ideal place to start.

Gatland has named 10 players in his squad aged 24 or under. Leon Brown and Keiron Assiratti, front rowers who should be in their absolute prime around the next World Cup, are also included. Weighing in at 20st 5lb and standing at 6ft 2in, Brown is a specimen who looks capable of bench-pressing entire gyms. Like Assiratti, though, he is a work in progress as a Test-class scrummager, with serious injuries not helping.

Leon Brown won the most recent of his 23 caps against Scotland in February (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

His former coach at Rodney Parade, ex-Wales prop Ceri Jones, has said Wales will reap long-term rewards if they invest in him: “Given enough time in that international set-up and enough time on the field, I don’t see any reason why he can’t develop into a significant Test player,” he waxed earlier this year.

“We did a lot of work with him while I was at the Dragons, with Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys coming in as well. There were a few technical matters we tidied up. He was coming on really well.

“We were trying to make him understand a good game for a young tight-head is to have a solid platform in place. It’s not necessarily about destroying every opponent.”

Maybe the way forward is not to expect too much from Brown or Assiratti in the short term and indeed to have patience with all the youngsters Gatland is set to expose to Test rugby.

Fearless in the air, Rio Dyer chases relentlessly and is also a dangerous attacker, one who flies at the opposition like an arrow released from a bow

Some, such as 6ft 6in lock Ben Carter, already have a fair idea of what the elite game is about. For the Dragon, it’s a question of putting extra miles on the clock and acquiring the layer of physicality every international second-row needs. The process doesn’t happen overnight, with strength and durability requiring time to develop. Maturity can’t be bought over the counter at Boots, nor can street wisdom.

Gatland is clearly looking to Carter and Teddy Williams to take their opportunities and show they have what it takes to operate alongside Adam Beard in Wales’s second-row group. The likelihood is the France-based Will Rowlands will be back for the Six Nations – at 32, the big man still has a lot of rugby in him at the top level – but the coaches need to widen their pool of young locks, with the Ospreys’ Rhys Davies among those who have put their hands up recently, having shone against Connacht and performed commendably in Saturday’s win over Zebre Parma.

Elsewhere, Ioan Lloyd hasn’t featured for his country since winning two caps off the bench in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. Operating at full-back, he had obvious work to do on his defence back then.

Three years on, the former Bristol Bear has resurfaced as a promising fly-half at the Scarlets, with Lloyd showing up well in adversity against the Bulls and repeating the trick against the Stormers. It was more a tap on Gatland’s door rather than a loud thud, but Lloyd’s effort was encouraging. More of the same and it’s not inconceivable he could figure on Gatland’s radar before the season is out.

One player already there is Sam Costelow, Lloyd’s team-mate at Parc y Scarlets, and he will want to use the Barbarians match to show how much he has learned from his World Cup experience.

Out wide Rio Dyer has the opportunity to showcase his considerable skills after emerging from France significantly in credit. Fearless in the air, he chases relentlessly and is also a dangerous attacker, one who flies at the opposition like an arrow released from a bow. If he tightens his defence and adds some awareness, he could become a Wales first-choice sooner rather than later.

Rio Dyer had an impressive Rugby World Cup campaign (Photo by Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

The Barbarians game is also an opportunity to iron out some creases evident at the World Cup, none more so than in the lineout, an area where Wales continue to hit problems. Against a scratch lineup, the selectors will hope the same issues won’t arise.

Gatland will make allowances for youth in the first match on the road to Australia 2027, but one of the Kiwi’s super-strengths is his ability to X-ray a player’s character.

It surely explains his choice of Jac Morgan as skipper, with the west Walian about more than just winning turnovers, putting in 20 tackles a game and scattering opponents with muscular low-to-the-ground carrying. He also has a fierce will to win.

Team-mates interested in getting ahead, then, should watch their captain closely this weekend and beyond, because he has that something extra.

If it could be bottled and liberally splashed around, Wales would be in a very good place indeed.

Comments

1 Comment
B
Bob Marler 233 days ago

How about a new coach as a radical Project? Gatland seems to be thin on ideas.

I reckon Wales should take a chance on a South African coach. There are similarities between Wales and SA. Could work out well.

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