Gatland breathes fire into his muddy dozen

Wales coach protects most valuable assets - and holds out hope for Henson
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For those who never watch Strictly Come Dancing – and the Wales coach Warren Gatland is among them – the most gripping moments include a grey-haired man holding up a card with a number on it. Gatland's hair has turned grey during a successful playing and coaching career, but though he has just extended his contract to guide Wales through to the next World Cup and then on to the one in 2015, the number on his mind is not five, as in years, but 12.

This is not pandering to populism with yet another mention of Gavin Henson's appearance on the BBC celebrity dance show. Gatland has a serious reason for wanting his stayaway centre out of the diamante and back in the Wales squad. The No 12 jersey worn by Henson in the 2008 Grand Slam under Gatland will probably be given to James Hook against Australia on Saturday week, with Jamie Roberts injured. If everyone was available, Gatland told The Independent on Sunday, Hook might be deployed instead at fly-half. As things stand, Stephen Jones is "shading it" in that position ahead of Dan Biggar.

The number 12 has another connotation. Mindful of Wales's shallow playing base, Gatland decided after last summer's tour to New Zealand to work with the regions on the welfare of his top dozen players. Excluding Andy Powell, now at Wasps, it is the Wales contingent from the 2009 Lions tour: Lee Byrne, Leigh Halfpenny, Shane Williams, James Hook, Jamie Roberts, Stephen Jones, Mike Phillips, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Matthew Rees and Martyn Williams.

"If we can get through without injuries, we're capable of beating anyone," said Gatland, "but in recent campaigns we've had four or five key players out and it's left us vulnerable. We've identified 12 really key players over the next 12 months and at the moment 11 are fit – the only one who's not is Jamie Roberts. We don't have central contracts but we've spoken to the regions about how important they are to us and they've been very helpful.

"They've had a longer pre-season than other players, they've played a bit less and if we continue to keep them fit by managing their time like that, it will be a huge boost. Rather than coming back from a tour and en bloc limit the squad, we have tried to individualise it a bit and pick the best quality for us."

Ensuring availability was behind Gatland making public last week the recalcitrant stance of England's clubs over releasing Welsh players next summer. He was surprised to receive contradictory letters on the same day from Phil Winstanley of Premiership Rugby and Martyn Thomas, the RFU chairman. "I'm not sure who's in charge there," Gatland said with a chuckle.

New Zealand will be no joke when they follow the Wallabies, Fiji and South Africa into Cardiff. "The All Blacks are great athletes but they're not always the biggest players," said Gatland, who hooked for his country 17 times in non-Test matches. "If they have sometimes been exposed it's been at scrum time."

The financial security of his contract and the sense of "a job half-done" with a mostly youthful team persuaded Gatland not to take a job with the Chiefs in his native Waikato. He will pass Graham Henry as Wales' longest-serving coach (Gatland has 28 matches to Henry's 34) in the Six Nations' Championship. "The WRU are happy with the structures we've got, the academies and the training regime," he said. "But I fully understand we're in a results-oriented business. If Wales have a poor World Cup, then my position's under pressure."

His wife and teenaged children, who lived in Ireland and London with him during previous employment, are back at home in Hamilton. "It's tough but I get a lot of quality time with them between campaigns," said Gatland. "There are business people earning good money who are out every day at dawn and back in the evening and never get that time."

He takes a patrician view of Henson, who is thought to be still under contract at the Ospreys despite Saracens saying they had spoken to him about a move. Could Henson train with Wales while not playing? "It's not out of the realms of possibility that you might invite him in to see how he is, where he is physically and how far he is away from playing," Gatland said. "But there's a huge amount to take into consideration. You've got to be seen to be fair and not giving any player special treatment.

"I haven't spoken to Gavin for a while and I don't know how he's doing with his 'dancing' [the word was said with a high-pitched, dare one say camp, inflection]. There's financial rewards and Gav did a BBC interview where he explained it and people commented positively on that.

"He is very shy and when he's just talking about rugby, people don't always get the right impression. He's had a little bit of the wild life and maybe he's thinking 'hey, I better settle down'. I just think it would be a shame if he turns round at 35, 36, and has regrets that he didn't come back and play. Not many people have the opportunity to be a top sportsman."