Warren Gatland's first game in charge of Wales will be against England, of all people, at Twickenham, of all places, on the opening weekend of the Six Nations Championship in February. It is not the easiest of starts – the Red Dragonhood have not won on the old cabbage patch in south-west London since Noah was a season ticket holder – but it might have been worse. He could, for instance, have opened his account against the new world champions, South Africa, in Cardiff a fortnight today.
The New Zealander's four-year contract – a very long deal indeed, given the Welsh habit of dumping their national coaches every four weeks – does not kick in until the start of next month, and he will not even be in town for the Springboks. "England will come around quickly enough," he said yesterday after being formally introduced as the successor to Gareth Jenkins, who was ripped to shreds by the local media and finally put out of his misery within 24 hours of the World Cup defeat by Fiji. "It's a hard game, but at least I have some advantage in knowing more about the English players than I do about the Welsh ones."
Gatland, a hard-nosed hooker from the farmlands of Waikato who gained All Black honours before embarking on coaching stints in Ireland and England – he guided Wasps to the 2004 Heineken Cup title and was widely regarded as an outstanding director of rugby – has plenty on his plate. "There is a tradition in this country of moving the ball and I don't want to throw that out, but at international level you have to get your basics right: the scrum, the line-out, ball-retention in contact and defence. That will be my first priority, together with building some consistency. I'm not talking about winning Grand Slams every year, but the differences in performance from one season to the next must be addressed. Wales are ranked 10th in the world now. Tenth? It's too low."
He is also keen to "build bridges" with the head coaches of the four regional sides: Phil Davies at Llanelli Scarlets, Lyn Jones at Ospreys, Paul Turner at Newport-Gwent Dragons and David Young at Cardiff Blues. He is also concerned at the number of foreign players in the country – the current agreement is six per team – and believes it to be an issue for discussion with the Welsh Rugby Union. "It could become a problem," he said. "If you have six highly-paid players on your books, you want them in your starting line-up. By my maths, that leaves nine places in each team for Welshmen. Four nines is 36, and that's the number from which I might find myself building a Test squad."
Talking of problems, how will Gavin Henson fit into his plans? "Everyone starts with a clean slate," he replied. "I'm sometimes described as a conservative, but I like individuality in players. Certainly, I don't want people to be clones of other people. I don't have a problem with Gavin being a little different. If he trains well and performs on the field, I won't be looking for too much else."
It could be good news, or it could be bad, but Gatland has already been given the dreaded vote of confidence. "We'll make this work, and we'll have some fun as well," promised Roger Lewis, the WRU group chief executive. Fun, or fun and games? We shall see.Reuse content