Gatland leads red horde into all black future

Coach has done much for Welsh development but his own sights are on the top job in his New Zealand home

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While Graham Henry keeps up his Sir Alex Ferguson act – the All Blacks coach has refused to say anything about whether he might carry on for a third World Cup cycle, which would take him to within eight months of his 70th birthday – his would-be successors can only jockey mutely for position.

Warren Gatland once said: "I haven't got a rugby CV and I've never applied for a job in my life." But if the Wales coach did jot down a few bullet points for the benefit of the New Zealand Rugby Union they would rival anyone's for variety and round-the-world success. The unspoken candidacy of this son of the Waikato for the top job in his native country makes a tantalising sub-plot to today's meeting of an extraordinarily youthful Wales side with the vastly experienced world champions, South Africa.

By fielding a Wales squad in Wellington that features seven players aged 22 or under, Gatland is fulfilling a prime requirement of the four-year extension to his contract that he signed late last year, which is to oversee the development of the next generation. If the result goes badly, it will need a strong argument from their guiding Kiwi that Wales have still made a gain by pitting Sam Warburton, George North and friends against a Springbok team with more caps (815) than any Test side in the game's history.

Victory might, on the other hand, gain Gatland a few approving nods from his fellow New Zealanders. "There is a lot of mutual respect among the players and the people of New Zealand and Wales and we are two nations who love our rugby," he has said. "But you don't get respect in this country, collectivelyor individually, unless you perform on the pitch here."

He was already at a disadvantage as a coach, being from unfashionable Waikato. Gatland played a record 140 matches for the north-island province and shared in the self-styled Mooloo Men's heyday of winning the Ranfurly Shield from Auckland and thrashing a British Lions side captained by Will Carling in 1993.

Still, he is aware that only two Waikato men – Dick Everest and John Mitchell – have coached the All Blacks. Even the stepping stone of looking after the Chiefs in Super Rugby has been beyond Gatland; an apparent agreement to succeed Ian Foster (a team-mate in that 1990s side) fell apart in unexplained circumstances four years ago. The Chiefs vacancy for 2012 has recently been filled by Dave Rennie, the national Under-20 coach, with Wayne Smith, now assisting Henry with the All Blacks, to join him.

Gatland has wandered the globe. His wife, Trudi, and their two teenaged children stayed in Hamilton during his latest stint with Wales but they were mostly along for the ride during his appointments with Galwegians, Connacht, Ireland and Wasps. The last won three Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup.

Then he had two years back in Hamilton, guiding Waikato to their second domestic provincial championship (the other was while he was a player). Gatland said: "There were quite a few people in New Zealand who said you couldn't win anything by playing northern-hemisphere-style rugby. That criticism pretty much dried up when we won the cup." An approach by England that Gatland said was bungled went by the wayside when he joined Wales after the 2007 World Cup, landing the Grand Slam in his first season.

But perhaps Gatland bungled himself – he once told me that not long after he joined Wasps in December 2001, he turned down an offer from Mitchell to join the All Black staff.

"Warren takes great pride in seeing a lot more Wales players come through to be of international class," says Basil Lennan, a school friend who has worked with Trudi on a scheme to put Welsh supporters up for free. "He's a Waikato boy; he bleeds the Waikato, basically. I had a coffee with him the other day. The guy's obviously got something and none of his mates here can understand why he's not in the All Blacks set-up. If Wales make the semi-finals it'll raise his profile immensely."

The accommodation scheme, inspired by the welcome the Gatlands and other Kiwis have had on their own travels, has seen 140 Welsh visitors given free accommodation in and around Hamilton for the matches against Samoa and Fiji.

Today Gatland begins his second World Cup – in 1999 Ireland's ended in a quarter-final play-off defeat by Argentina. As a player he made 17 appearances for the All Blacks but, due mainly to the presence of Sean Fitzpatrick as hooker, none of them in Tests. Graham Dowd of North Harbour was the bench No 2 for the 1991 tournament.

If that lingering hurt is ever to be salved by Gatland wearing the coveted silver fern as a coach, Wellington would be a wonderful place to start. "South Africa will put the ball up in the air and use power runners," he predicted. "But playing them first up in this competition is a great opportunity for us." And possibly for Gatland too, in a different sense.