'Warren is an absolute legend of the game'
WORLD CUP SPOTLIGHT: Warren Gatland will bow out from his 12-year stint as Wales coach having earned the respect of the sport’s powerhouses, but never reaching a World Cup Final and with just one more chance to notch up a win over his native New Zealand.
Wales went down 16-19 to South Africa in Sunday’s World Cup semifinal in Yokohama, leaving them a third-place play-off with the All Blacks, who were beaten by England on Saturday.
“The biggest thing I am proud of is that we have earned respect from the rest of the world in terms of what we have achieved in the last 12 years. I am not sure it was there before that,” said the 56-year-old Gatland.
“World rankings, where we were at [10th], what we have achieved in terms of Six Nations and Grand Slams.”
Gatland added of Friday’s match: “It’s my last game in charge of Wales and it will be monumental. I would love to beat the All Blacks. That is one I have not achieved.”
Regardless of Friday’s result, Gatland will end his time with Wales as one of the most highly respected coaches in world rugby, having led the Welsh to four Six Nations titles since taking over in 2007.
Appointed as the 20th Welsh national coach in November 2007, he could hardly have had a better start, leading Wales to the 2008 Six Nations championship title and the nation’s 10th Grand Slam.
The Kiwi also oversaw the British and Irish Lions’ series victory in Australia in 2013 and the drawn series against New Zealand in 2017, but has come in for criticism for his poor record against southern hemisphere teams.
As a player, the former hooker featured in 17 non-international matches for New Zealand, but never won an international cap. He racked up a record 140 appearances for Waikato before retiring in 1995.
He first touched down in Europe as player/coach for Irish side Galwegians, opting to stay on after the 1989 New Zealand tour.
In 1996, he took over at unfashionable Irish province Connacht and succeeded Brian Ashton in 1998 as coach of Ireland, with whom he had a record of 18 wins, one draw and 19 losses.
From Ireland, Gatland joined Wasps, winning a hat-trick of Premiership titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the European Challenge Cup in 2003 and European Cup in 2004.
Returning home, he won the 2006 New Zealand Cup title with Waikato’s provincial side before joining the Chiefs Super 14 team and then moving to Wales.
Not only was there a Grand Slam in 2008, but a second in 2012, a Six Nations title in 2013, and a third championship clean sweep last season.
Cynics in Wales, however, will point at Gatland’s poor record against the south hemisphere trio of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, although that has slowly changed.
While Wales have never beaten the All Blacks in his reign, they have notched up four victories over the Springboks and three over the Wallabies.
The team’s fourth place in the 2011 World Cup came after just one victory over a major power, Ireland, in the quarterfinals.
The 2015 World Cup saw Wales dramatically beat hosts England in pool play but go down to South Africa in the quarterfinals.
But critics aside, there is no doubt Gatland has transformed the Welsh XV into viable contenders in Europe with a tight-knit group of players based around some individual excellence.
In 2021, Gatland, in his reprised guise of Lions coach, will likely come up once more again Rassie Erasmus, the Springboks director of rugby who has stepped into the head coach role in the lead-up to this World Cup.
“Warren is an absolute legend of the game. You very seldom see him in a mouth fight and mudslinging before Test matches,” said Erasmus.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for him as a person.”
Erasmus added: “I will see Gatland in the future. We will definitely compete again, and it is always a pleasure competing with him because he is a gentleman on and off the field, and he deserves all the credit that goes his way.”