Gatland's young guns ready to fire as Kiwis go on coach hunt

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The Independent Online

It is difficult to judge who has the harder task this week, between the Welsh Rugby Union hoping to avert the All Blacks' eyes from their head coach or Warren Gatland attempting to keep a lid on the expectation building around his young team.

Wales are already in uncharted territory – on Saturday, they will play France in their first World Cup semi-final appearance since 1987, following their comprehensive 22-10 victory over their much-heralded Irish opponents. Plans are already in the pipeline to screen that game inside Cardiff's Millennium Stadium.

Yesterday's headlines in the New Zealand papers pushed Gatland, a Waikato native, as the frontrunner to succeed Graham Henry, who is expected to stand down as head coach of the All Blacks after the World Cup.

The New Zealand great Graham Mourie, a member of the NZRFU board, has already hinted the All Blacks may be willing to bend the rules to accommodate a coach, such as Gatland, who is not currently working in New Zealand. .

Gatland's Wales have managed to find a silken touch to wrap around their brute-force front. His young charges executed Gatland's gameplan to the letter, dissecting Ireland's piece by piece until there was little left but a green rabble.

The coach believes these performances were born from a summer of hard graft that included 5am training sessions, vomit-inducing fitness drills and minus 140-degree cryotherapy chambers. "I felt during the warm-up games that we were going to have a good tournament. As an international coach, you are relying on the players avoiding injury, you get no preparation time," Gatland said. "Then you can lose a couple of games when you are criticised and you get the sack. I don't think you should be judged on that.

"You judge yourself on having the opportunity to prepare the team properly as you will with a club side.

"I think I've demonstrated that in the past, whether it was with Wasps or Waikato, and now with Wales. Give me a chance to prepare for a few months and I think I can make a bit of a difference."

Gatland has been brave with his selection, showing a willingness to stake his reputation on kids who play with unashamed confidence and are untainted by previous failures. Reputations mean nothing to these youngsters. The British Lions back row of Ryan Jones, Andy Powell and Martyn Williams have been ousted and James Hook was left on the bench, while Stephen Jones and Lee Byrne were left out altogether. In their places, are players unknown outside of domestic rugby – Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, Sam Warburton, Rhys Priestland and George North.

An injection of youth has galvanised those older heads around, veterans of Grand Slam campaigns and Lions tours, now playing with renewed enthusiasm. "We have youth and exuberance and this side wants to express themselves," said attack coach Rob Howley. "These boys have worked particularly hard and there's no fear there. We now have an opportunity."