In Wales, it has been tradition to not have one head coach of the national rugby team.
There’s three million.
Such is the goldfish bowl of Welsh rugby, the pressure on the man in charge at the top level is palpable. And very few have been able to handle it.
Step forward Warren Gatland.
The bullish Kiwi jumped into affairs in Cardiff at one of the country’s lowest ebbs. Unceremoniously dumped out of the 2007 World Cup at the group stage, hot on the back of rumours of player power and mutinies within the camp – it was a veritable soap opera, and one fans had seen all too often.
Fast forward 12 years and the state of the game in Wales – at international level at least – has rarely been healthier. The same can’t be said for the club game, but that’s a conversation for another day.
In a little more than a decade Gatland has delivered a couple of Grand Slams, a World Cup semi and quarter-final – and a little bit of hope for the watching legions.
It has not always been plain sailing, they have been dips in form, and question marks over Gatland’s style of play, but what he leaves is unrecognisable to what he inherited.
The evolution has been spectacular.
From the instant success of a Grand Slam in 2008, built on ensuring his side was fitter than the opposition, but with the flair of
Gavin Henson, Stephen Jones and link play of Martyn Williams.
This morphed into the now fabled Gatland-ball. The tactic that pounded the opposition into submission, but nearly saw the Welsh crowds lose faith in their adopted son.
Accusation of a lack of Plan B, and assumptions the style of play was easy to combat with ever improving defences certainly had the armchair coaches questioning if Gatland would survive.
A shift to a more expansive game a couple of years ago changed that.
Even if they are not winning, a Welsh crowd wants to be entertained, and while it may have been a shift from his more pragmatic roots, Gatland again showed his ability to adapt.
In this year’s Six Nations we have seen things evolve further. A new addition to Wales’ play has been an air of self-assurance, a confidence to be patient in possession and
trust the process. This has yielded two tries from thirty-plus phases – something we haven’t really seen from Wales in the past.
This smacks of a side preparing for the World Cup, one that is willing to grind and grind points, and wins. They have been nowhere near their scintillating best in this year’s Six Nations, but have done what they needed to. Win. Nobody remembers who played nice rugby, they remember who won World Cups. If you can do both, great – but if winning ugly is needed then so be it, and that is in Gatland’s mind.
This weekend will see Gatland’s final competitive match in Cardiff, and there would be no better way than to bookend his Wales days with another Grand Slam. Whether it happens, in the grand scheme of things will neither set, or tarnish, his legacy. That has been built up over more than a decade – and it’s on that will see him fondly remembered as the greatest coach
Wales have had – his three million contemporaries will vouch for that.
Only Ireland stand in the way of Wales achieving a remarkable third Six Nations clean sweep during head coach Warren Gatland’s reign.
It is Gatland’s final Six Nations encounter as Dragons boss before stepping down from his post after the World Cup later this year.
Ireland can still win the championship, while England – who host Scotland at Twickenham this weekend – are also in the title mix.
Here, we look at the key talking points ahead of Saturday’s games.
ITALY V FRANCE (Saturday, 16:30)
Talking point: What France will turn up?
The French were absolutely shocking in their 26-14 defeat to Ireland. The scoreline itself may suggest a different story, but Ireland should have put more points on the board and France were lucky to cross for two late tries.
They have no game plan, no structure and look disinterested. Their lack of consistency is shown in the way they failed to turn up for the first half against Wales and then nearly won the game. The following week they were hammered by England and then ground out a dour victory against Scotland in round three.
It’s frustrating to watch a side with so many talented players who choose not to perform in their international shirt. In saying that, they will probably end up winning well against Italy, given the Azzurri’s lack of organisation this tournament.
But something needs to change post this tournament.
Key Battle: Sergio Parisse v Louis Picamoles
Both players were largely unconvincing in the last round and will be determined to finish their respective campaigns on a high with strong performances.
Parisse is the heartbeat of the Azzurri side and has proved to be a menace with and without the ball over the years, with his strong carrying ability sure to put France under pressure.
A lot of weight will be on the 35-year-old to step up, similar to Les Bleus powerhouse Picamoles.
The Montpellier man struggled against Ireland, with just two carries, but will be one of the main men Les Bleus will look to get over the gain line at Stade de Olimpico.
Prediction: France to win by 10
It’s hard to see anything but a French victory in Rome. Italy may put it up to them for different spells of the game, but Les Bleus should record a second win of the campaign.
WALES V IRELAND (18:45)
Talking point: Can Ireland stop Wales?
Joe Schmidt has yet to win in Cardiff, but Ireland have a knack for derailing teams on the cusp of Grand Slam glory.
James Ryan, Garry Ringrose, Cian Healy and Johnny Sexton all looked in stunning form against France and will be central to Ireland’s game plan against the Dragons.
But the home side have plenty of stars of their own and will be determined to achieve a first Grand Slam in seven years.
Form and hunger of late suggests Wales have more in their armoury, but they need to show more attacking-wise rather than grind Ireland down defensively. A tactic they did exceptionally well in the second half against Scotland when the home side enjoyed the bulk of possession.
A belter of a test awaits.
Key Battle: Alun Wyn Jones v James Ryan
This weekend’s most fascinating duel.
Both players are at different ends of their respective careers but are dynamic, industrious, have superb control on the ball, look like real leaders and central to their success at line-out time.
Jones is the clear lieutenant whether it’s for club or country and consistently produces sterling displays. Ryan may be 11 years younger but the Leinster man is regularly the best player on the field and always steps up in the big games.
Whoever gets on top in the line-out will be key to deciding the outcome of this match.
Prediction: Ireland to win by 2
It’s going to be a hugely physical contest. With both teams at close to full strength, it is set up to be the match of the tournament. Wales are brimming with confidence and Ireland are looking back to their best. Gatland and Schmidt will want to bow out of their last Six Nations on a high. A score will be the difference of this thriller.
SCOTLAND V ENGLAND (21:00)
Talking point: Hard to see a repeat of 2018
Scotland shocked England last year with a thrilling win at Murrayfield, but the Scots have not won at Twickenham since 1983.
And judging by their current form, it looks unlikely they will repeat last year’s heroics, especially with their spate of injuries this campaign.
England, despite their second-half performance against the Dragons, have dazzled with class and look to have far too much creativity, accuracy and determination in defence to see off the hosts.
Key Battle: Finn Russell v Owen Farrell
A lot of reliance will fall on the shoulders of Russell. The Racing man has superb delivery and is clever from the boot, similar to the ilk of Farrell. If the 27-year-old can dominate the game early on then Scotland have a chance.
But without a host of key names, it will be difficult for Scotland to beat their neighbours for a second successive year. Gregor Townsend side’s biggest problem is staying switched on for 80 minutes. They normally dip at some point and that is where the talisman Farrell can capitalise.
The England skipper has constantly exposed the opposition’s positioning with his clever kicks, vision and solid distribution – all of which have been keys to the Red Rose’s success this campaign.
On form, no one can currently rival him.
Prediction: England to win by 18
It’s going to take a couple of big moments for Scotland to turn this around. The first 20 minutes will be crucial to deciding the outcome of the match. But with the sparkling form of Joe Cokanasiga, Manu Tuilagi, Tom Curry, Owen Farrell and Jonny May, the Red Rose have too much in the tank.
Victory for fly-half Anscombe and company would secure Wales the Six Nations title and a third Grand Slam of New Zealander Gatland’s reign.
No coach in history has masterminded three Five or Six Nations clean sweeps, but Gatland is now 80 minutes away from potentially achieving that.
It is also his final Six Nations game as Wales boss – he steps down after the World Cup in Japan later this year – and Anscombe has no doubt how highly he rates.
“He has got to go down as Wales’ best coach,” said Anscombe, whose parents will travel from New Zealand to watch Saturday’s Cardiff encounter.
“It is hard to go past his record and what he has accomplished – the fact that we are going for another Grand Slam that would be his third.
“He has just got the ability to get the best out of everyone, and as a player, one thing he does do is give you a belief to win.
“He really does leave no doubt in your mind that the team will get the job done. That’s what he did in the lead-up to the England game (Wales won 21-13).
“He has an exceptional ability to get the boys up for what we are doing. I am sure he will know the buttons to push this week.
“He has been with Wales a long time, and he will probably be a little bit emotional as it will be the last time in the stadium with this on the line. He deserves to go out with this.
“But likewise, everyone deserves it with the work we have put in and the commitment we have shown. We all deserve to get this, but it won’t come easy and Ireland won’t put this on a plate for us.”
When Wales last won the Grand Slam seven years ago, Anscombe and his national team colleague, centre Hadleigh Parkes, were preparing to make their Super Rugby debuts for the Auckland-based Blues against the Bulls in South Africa.
But both players are now an integral part of the Wales set-up, performing key roles during an unbeaten Six Nations campaign and a 13-match winning run.
“It’s crazy how much my rugby landscape has changed over the past four to six years,” Anscombe added.
“I am in a hugely-privileged position and I am enjoying my time here and being part of this group.
“For us to be where we are at, with 13 wins in a row, it’s nice maybe to be able to look back one day and say you were part of that.
“For us to get the Grand Slam, it would be something that no-one could take away from you. It would be right up there in terms of accomplishments.
“You can see this week how much it means to the public, and everyone is desperate to finish the job.
“We know as players that we might not get this chance again. So you hate to look back with regret.
“It is going to take a huge effort from us. It is going take our best performance of the Six Nations, too. We want to finish on a high with our best performance.”
Provided by Press Association Sport