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.
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