Wales have huge debt to settle
SIX NATIONS SPOTLIGHT: Warren Gatland cut a relaxed, confident figure this week as he prepared for his final Six Nations as Wales head coach.
Gatland, who will leave his post following the 2019 Rugby World Cup, appears totally at ease with the task facing him in his last nine months in Wales.
He even found time to have dinner with England rival Eddie Jones when he travelled to London for Wednesday’s Six Nations launch, describing his relationship with his fellow international coaches as good. “There is no animosity there,” he said.
It is all something of a contrast to his first appearance at the tournament’s annual grand unveiling, in 2008, when the newly installed Wales coach took aim at the Rugby Football Union for its handling of Brian Ashton’s contract and allowing Shaun Edwards to join him at The Vale.
Back then Gatland was the young upstart with a point to prove. When he accepted the Welsh Rugby Union’s offer a few months previously, he was searching for the loyalty he felt was absent in Ireland and Waikato.
Having arrived with the Wales national team at its lowest ebb, the hurt of a pool-stage exit from the 2007 World Cup still raw, he restored the national team’s reputation almost immediately.
In Gatland’s first game in charge, England were beaten at Twickenham for the first time in two decades as the charge towards a Grand Slam started in fine style.
Another clean sweep would follow in 2012 before that electric March night in 2013 on which Wales smashed England 30-3 inside the Principality Stadium to snatch the championship from under the noses of their great rivals.
Gatland was not in the Wales dugout for the latter triumph, during his sabbatical with the British and Irish Lions, but it was undoubtedly his team and a victory earned in his image.
Whatever happens between now and the end of the World Cup, Gatland will leave his post as a legend of Welsh rugby and quite possibly the greatest Wales coach of all time.
Yet there is a feeling that the best could still be to come.
Now the elder statesman of Six Nations coaches, Gatland has found the loyalty he craved when he arrived in Cardiff 11 years ago. And it is telling that three of his most trusted lieutenants – Edwards, Rob Howley and captain Alun Wyn Jones – remain from that opening win at Twickenham.
It is clear that Gatland is quietly confident that a fourth Six Nations championship of his tenure could be secured by March 16, and he has good reason to be.
Wales currently sit third in World Rugby’s rankings, are on the longest winning run of the New Zealander’s reign and find themselves just two wins shy of the country’s all-time longest streak.
Gatland’s side travel to Paris on Friday having lost just once in their previous seven meetings with Les Bleus, and that a farcical denouement featuring reset scrum after reset scrum that the men in red led until the 99th minute.
That Wales face both Ireland and England – the two pre-tournament favourites – at home in Cardiff only adds to the feeling that Gatland is set for a glorious goodbye to Northern Hemisphere rugby’s showpiece event.
But despite his calm demeanour, Gatland’s championship preparation has not been without its setbacks.
Taulupe Faletau broke his arm playing for Bath just days before the Six Nations squad was announced, while Leigh Halfpenny was included but will not play any part in the first two matches – at least – as he continues to battle concussion symptoms.
Of the 39 players selected by Gatland for the championship, only 27 were able to train when the squad met up at their training base at The Vale last Monday.
Centre Scott Williams looks set to miss the trip to Paris, but much of Gatland’s concern is focused on the second-row where Adam Beard – a star in the autumn – is suffering from a concussion and Cory Hill has had an injection in a shoulder injury.
Experienced Scarlets lock Jake Ball was back in PRO14 action for his region on Friday but the situation was grave enough for Gatland to joke to Jones on Wednesday: “Don’t get injured, whatever you do”.
Wales also have problems in the back three – where Liam Williams is nursing a broken finger and Josh Adams a hamstring injury – and back-row, where Ross Moriarty is another recovering from a concussion.
But the squad depth that Gatland has worked so hard to nurture since the last World Cup means that they are still well stocked in each position. Hallam Amos, Steff Evans and Jonah Holmes are ready to step into the back-three, while the loss of Faletau, Ellis Jenkins, James Davies and potentially Moriarty is offset by the form of Aaron Wainwright, Josh Navidi and Thomas Young.
Captain Jones revealed this week that the squad would not be “overly sentimental” when the time comes to say goodbye to Gatland. There might not be any tea or cake but the players would love to send the Kiwi coach on his way with some more silverware.
Jones said: “We want to win the Six Nations and the biggest compliment you can pay Warren is you want to play for your coach.”
It would take a Welshman with a heart of granite to suggest that Gatland did not deserve it.
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