Gatland back for Wales' greatest challenge
Warren Gatland will rejoin the Wales squad this week – "I'm sure he'll be in bright and early Monday morning," Neil Jenkins, the skills coach and legend of the boot predicted – facing the greatest challenge of his career.
No one will give the New Zealander a prayer of inspiring a team smarting from home defeats by Argentina and Samoa in the past nine days, and beset by injuries to key men, to put one over the All Blacks in Cardiff on Saturday, with Australia to follow a week later. All Jenkins promised was "a lot of hard work" and that the Welsh players would be "seriously on edge, and very nervous of who they're playing. They'll need to be, otherwise we might come unstuck."
As Grand Slam champions, and after three close-run losses to Australia in the summer, Wales began the autumn vowing to climb the world rankings from sixth. After two strangely lacklustre defeats by teams below them in the standings under the interim head coach Rob Howley, while Gatland was away doing commercial and scouting business connected with his taking charge of next summer's Lions tour, they are now more concerned about avoiding the drop to ninth, which would bring a tougher draw for the 2015 World Cup.
"It's been difficult," Jenkins said. "We've got no excuses, we as coaches all worked hard, we all put the work in. Rob has obviously been doing a lot more than he normally would and it's quite tough. We've all had to chip in more. We take the accolades, we take the blame as well."
Both Howley, who will be in charge again during the Six Nations' Championship in February and March, and Jenkins know what it is to be mugged by Samoa. They were the half-backs and Howley was captain when the Samoans won 38-31 in Cardiff during the 1999 World Cup and ensured Wales would meet the champions to be, Australia, in the quarter-finals. The islanders' team who won 26-19 on Friday night are full of brutal tacklers and ballplayers, most of them employed by European clubs.
Wales do not look happy; their gigantic wide men are not seeing the ball, and overall they have lost the zip and attitude that is crucial to Gatland's gameplan. Two bulwarks of the breakdown and scrum, flanker Dan Lydiate and prop Adam Jones, are among the crocks. And there are other factors, such as players from French clubs missing the pre-autumn training in Poland.
So while it is simplistic to suggest Gatland's restoration will effect a turnaround – a full-strength Wales in their pomp would be second favourites against New Zealand – his speciality is flicking the right mental switches. "Gatland is an outstanding coach," said Jenkins, who has been with the national team since 2006, "one of the best in the world. Anyone would miss someone as good as Gats, someone of that calibre and understanding of the game, he knows something about everyone."
Asked whether Wales should attempt to ramp up the power on Saturday or introduce more variety, Jenkins pointed out that James Hook offered a playmaking alternative or adjunct to the becalmed Rhys Priestland, but said: "You're playing against the best side, who generally cope with what most opposition throw at them. We need balance: power, playing with our backs, a kicking game. We need to keep the ball for long periods, phase after phase, and make the All Blacks tackle. We're as shocked as anyone with how we're going. How do we start winning the collisions again? Maybe run harder?"
As the flanker Justin Tipuric put it: "The biggest thing is getting back on the training pitch and putting things right." Gatland, who would dearly love to put one over the All Blacks coach, Steve Hansen, will lead that. But Hansen has motivation of his own, having coached Wales through some tough times in 2002-03. He returns at the helm of the world champions, and will not go easy on his former charges.
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