Gatland returned to Wales and had a poor Six Nations but his side have impressed at the World Cup
Warren Gatland’s return to Welsh rugby wasn’t all street parties. Quite the opposite. In fact, social media’s response was less parties in the street and more riots in the road. Many thought it was a bad idea to return to a previous job, and some just didn’t want Gatland’s style of rugby anymore.
This column too, had been critical of Gatland in the past – critical with a small c. We wanted a bit more creativity in midfield in years gone by and thought that the centres, in particular, should be allowed to develop their distribution game – in the same way that Samu Kerevi and Ma’a Nonu had.
Read more: Wales Rugby World Cup squad
But hindsight is a wonderful thing. Criticising Gatland’s previous stint is comparable to moaning that your diamond encrusted Ferrari is too spiky to run your hand across the bonnet, or that your butler keeps forgetting your name.
However, Gatland’s return has been incredibly successful. If he achieves nothing else, he’s got Wales out of their Rugby World Cup group – something that many thought wouldn’t happen.
You could argue that Wales’ have had an easier group that many others, but that’s not Gatland’s problem. Gatland could deliver Wales’ third RWC semi-final under his command, fourth overall, which is an amazing achievement for a country whose player pool is more suited to paddling, than diving off the top board.
Whilst many aspects of Gatland’s strategy remain familiar, some are very different. The Welsh squad are of course supremely fit in this tournament, with some of the Welsh players appearing to have less fat than a Greek Yoghurt.
You need only look at the front row substitutions against Australia which took place at 65 minutes – approximately ten minutes later than many coaches opt for. Weirdly, Gatland gets his players so fit that many supporters and pundits often use it as a stick with which to beat him and his squad – being ‘fit’ is somehow not seen as ‘rugby’, or being skilful etc.
Wales fans Warren Gatland reaction
Then there are Wales’ defensive stats. Even with a new defence coach (Mike Forshaw) and not his trusted Shaun Edwards, Wales’ tackle completion will be the envy of many – five of the top 20 tacklers in this tournament are Welsh (at the time of writing).
But this isn’t ‘Warren ball’ 1.0 by any stretch of the imagination. With the ever-impressive Nick Tompkins at 12, Wales can’t simply fly down the 12 channel, batter the first tackler and set up a ruck. Tompkins isn’t that type of player. What we now see with Wales’ centres is far more triple threat, where kick/pass/run is an option in every phase that runs through the centres.
But perhaps the largest amount of praise for Gatland 2.0 should be reserved for the way that he has turned around the Test careers of those players who looked to have stalled. Which is a true, objective measure of a Test coach.
Unlike club/ regional/ provincial coaches, Test coaches don’t have the option to buy in new players. They have to work with what they’ve got and therefore any improvements in a player’s performance, at Test level, is evidence of a change/ improvement in coaching.
The evidence for Gatland having achieved this is clear. Aaron Wainwright is now the player that we all assumed he would become, a clever ball carrier, with good footwork and a proficient lineout option.
Then there’s Adam Beard, who to the trained eye, always impressed. But to the causal supporter, didn’t appear to be doing much. That is no longer the case, with Beard now doing the invisible and visible work.
And of course, there’s Jac Morgan. The player who was too small to play rugby and is now dominating in every single game he plays. Morgan not only offers a tremendous defensive skillset, but the same is also the case with the ball in hand. He’s the most impressive ball carrier that Wales have had in a long time. And Gatland would love to play him at six and seven. The only reason he isn’t is because cutting him in half would trigger alarms in the European Court of Human Rights.
All of this has been achieved by Gatland in one of the most unsettling seasons that Welsh rugby has ever seen – a situation for which the bar is set at Olympic pole-vault level. The Six Nations’ prep couldn’t have been any worse, given the arguments over pay between the players, the regions and WRU.
At times, there was more tension in the Welsh dressing room than on Come Dine With Me. Plus this new contract with Wales also came after a tricky period for Gatland at the Chiefs. Where for whatever reasons, things didn’t quite work out – probably for the first time in his career.
Many have speculated whether Gatland will stay long-term following the RWC. But why wouldn’t he? He signed a long-term contract and has access to a pipeline of genuinely exciting prospects like Max Llewellyn. Plus, the youngsters that he already has in his group, such as Jac Morgan, Christ Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins, Mason Grady and Sam Costelow.
But before that, Wales will likely have Argentina, and if that goes to plan possibly Ireland in the semi-final – where anything could happen. As they say, never a pick a fight with someone who has nothing to lose (Wales), or everything to lose (Ireland). Welcome back, Mr G.