If Warren Gatland were a Game of Thrones character, he’d be Daenerys Targaryen. Played by English actress Emilia Clarke, she is heralded as the ‘Mother of Dragons’ in the hit TV show – she walked into a blazing fire in season one and emerged not only unburnt, but with three hatched baby dragons as her children.
And New Zealand native Gatland could well be crowned the ‘Father of Dragons’ for the role he has played in nurturing and moulding this young and exciting Welsh squad that seems destined for greatness, even though their paternal leader will leave them to fend for themselves later this year when he departs after the World Cup.
The youthful exuberance of this current crop is not the only reason for bestowing the nickname upon Gatland. Despite being a Kiwi, an outsider, he is very much a central figure in this Welsh set-up, indeed in Welsh rugby history.
For no one individual – certainly off the field – even comes close to the impact the 55-year-old has had on the nation in its 137-year existence.
Although the Welsh Rugby Union was established in 1881 and a first-ever international was played later that year against famous old foes England, Wales did not have their first proper coach until David Nash’s appointment in 1967.
Since then Gatland’s effect on the Dragons has been most stark. He is the only man to have led Wales for more than 100 games (109), with his 56 victories dwarfing the next highest figure of 20 posted by compatriot Graham Henry, who was in charge from 1998-2002.
He has been in the role twice as long as the next longest servant, Clive Rowlands (1968-74). Alan Davies, meanwhile, who was coach from 1991-95, oversaw the second most games, 35.
Gatland led Wales for an unprecedented 109th time against France on Friday as the 2019 Six Nations – his last in charge – got under way in Paris.
It will soon be the end of an era for Wales. The Hamilton-born man will relinquish his 12-year reign on his Dragons after the World Cup in Japan.
But rather than looking at the future with skepticism as Gatland, as well as assistants Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards also sever ties, Welsh rugby fans should look to the horizon with hope and excitement. For there is much to get excited about.
There is a tantalising mix of youth and experience in a talented squad Gatland has picked for an assault on the Six Nations as he looks to bow out with a fourth title of his tenure.
Captain Alun-Wyn Jones, who is somehow still only 33 and the only surviving member of Gatland’s first game in charge – a rousing 26-19 triumph over England in the first week of the 2008 Six Nations – remains a force of nature.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny remains one of the finest kickers in the game, Jonathan Davies’ return from lengthy injury is a welcome one – the Scarlets centre is arguably Wales’ most talent-rich player.
Ken Owens’ best years have come at the latter part of his career, Justin Tipuric is one of the best all-round forwards in international rugby, while 10-cap Hadleigh Parkes – who only earned his Wales debut aged 30 in the 2017 autumn internationals – has fitted seamlessly into the Welsh midfield.
That’s without even mentioning the likes of players who have in excess of 50 caps – George North, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar and Scott Williams – yet are still aged 26-29. And we’ve bypassed the fact Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts are recently retired.
With that as a solid base, throw the likes of emerging stars Thomas Young (26), Ross Moriarty, Steff Evans, Tomos Williams (all 24), Josh Adams and Adam Beard (both 23) into the mix.
Only six players in this squad are over 30. Only England (four) have fewer veterans in their 2019 Six Nations contingent.
Wales are also finally playing an attractive, attacking brand of rugby under Gatland, having firmly moved on from the ‘Warrenball’ tactics of crash ball. Wingers Evans and Adams are livewires while the return of Davies in the midfield gives the back line a player who reads the game like an American football quarterback.
So, although the sun is very much setting on Gatland’s time in charge, and while there is plenty of sentiment going around for what he has done for Welsh rugby, there is little sadness.
This Welsh side is set up for a new era. Wayne Pivac is primed to replace his compatriot and the current Scarlets tactician, who will become Wales’ fourth Kiwi coach, could not ask for much more in terms of an ideal handover.
Two of Wales’ Six Nations titles under Gatland have yielded Grand Slams, but they enter his final tournament looking for a first trophy in six years and with reigning champions Ireland and England – the only two winners in the intervening years – slightly more favoured.
But aside from wanting to send their fatherly figure off with a fourth Six Nations trophy of his reign, they also come into the tournament with plenty of momentum. Wales’ wonderful winning streak now stands at 10 following a battling victory in Paris. They haven’t tasted defeat since losing to Ireland midway through last year’s tournament.
Win one more and they will equal the country’s longest run of successive wins, 11, stretching back to 1910.
If Italy fall next week, then Wales will have the chance to set a new record of 12 wins against England in Cardiff on February 23.
Achieve that and the Father of Dragons might just be able to convince people he can walk through fire unscathed too.
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