Our columnist looks ahead at what Wales fans should expect
Opinion: Prepare for the second coming of Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland is back in Welsh rugby, and he’s timed his run like the test tube baby of Lee Byrne and Ruby Tui.
We shouldn’t expect anything less from Gatland. You don’t get to his level of achievement without understanding timing both on and off the field. Weeks from the Six Nations, and months from the Rugby World Cup, there is no better coach in the world to take that role. But Gatland hasn’t just timed his run well for the current RWC cycle, it’s the next four years after that when he will make the real gains.
But before we discuss Gatland and his possible team of Jonathan Humphreys, Neil Jenkins, Paul Gustard/Jonathan Thomas and Rob Howley/Mark Jones, we must discuss Wayne Pivac and his team.
At the Scarlets, he produced some of the most aesthetically pleasing rugby that the league had seen. Rapid ruck speed, delivered by light, skilful back-row forwards, created a blueprint that many thought would translate into Test rugby, sadly it did not. Almost as soon the coaching team took control of the Welsh team, the days of being able to pick three sevens in the back row seemed doomed. Plus, the increased threat of rolling mauls, and defensive lines that are now more tightly packed than an old bag of Skittles, meant that bigger heavier back-row forwards are now a must. It’s also worth noting that Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones are both incredibly nice people, the type that you’d like to see involved in rugby at the top end.
But sadly, Test rugby doesn’t work like that. And when you lose to Italy and Georgia in the same calendar year, the rugby optics are worse than the actual optics in a pub, which have seen you drain 12 litres of Baileys during the 12 days of Christmas.
As positive as Gatland’s return is, there are of course critics of his return. Do we really want ‘Warren Ball 2’ – the reboot? Plenty, including this column, criticised ‘Warren Ball 1’. But as many have realised, we were spoiled under the previous Gatland era. Criticising someone who is winning repeated Grand Slams now feels like complaining that our diamond shoes are too tight, or that our Rolex Daytona is too heavy for swimming with those rare albino dolphins.
But whilst some will always prefer the open approach to rugby, the Pivac approach. All prefer to win – which is the Gatland approach. And that is what Gatland will deliver immediately.
Players such as Rhys Carré will be on Gatland’s speed dial. He may have missed some fitness targets post Covid, but he looks to have recently run straight through those targets – using the data from Oval Insight, only Father Christmas carried more than Carré over the festive period. Players like Ross Moriarty and James Botham will no longer be overlooked for lighter back-row forwards and Jac Morgan will become Gatland’s new Warburton.
It could be argued that Pivac et all were unlucky with the overall Welsh player production line during their tenure. Pivac was genuinely short of tight-head options, tens and centres in particular. Some of his squad options often looked more like a cupboard in the first week of January, than the last week of December. It also came at an all-time low for Welsh regional rugby. With all four regions desperately seeking much needed help from the WRU like a Dickensian rugby-based Christmas story.
But this is where Gatland has timed his run perfectly. Over the next RWC cycle, Gatland will have access to players who are custom made for his blueprint. In the centre he’ll soon have access to Joe Hawkins, Max Llewellyn and Mason Grady. If you gave Gatland a pencil and asked him to draw his ideal centres, they’d look very similar to those three gents. All have size, pace and hands to play wide. The same can be said at lock. Pivac did have access to Adam Beard, Will Rowlands and Alun Wyn Jones. But Gatland will soon also have Daf Jenkins, Ben Carter and Rhys Davies – that’s six proper Top 14 style lumps.
Then there’s the back row, where a host of bigger gainline botherers are waiting to be selected regularly. Namely, Christ Tshiunza – as his first name would suggest, a lot of people have been waiting for him to appear and he has.
No-one likes to see people losing their jobs, particularly in this economic climate and more importantly when they’re as nice as both Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones. But Gatland’s return is great for Welsh rugby and has already led to an uplift in Lypsyl sales in Wales – the licking of lips has already begun.
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