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Gatland: The Kiwi dragon

The Welsh board knew within minutes of meeting Warren Gatland that the former All Black hooker was 'one of us'. Chris Hewett explains how the straight-talker has taken Wales to the brink of a first World Cup final

Warren Gatland lost a player to injury late on Wednesday night, New Zealand time. Not any old player, mark you, but Rhys Priestland: the young outside-half who has emerged as the principal game-shaping presence in this thrilling Red Dragon side; who would have run things his way in tomorrow's World Cup semi-final with France; who is probably the most striking symbol of the head coach's achievement in turning a gifted but profoundly inconsistent team into live contenders for the Webb Ellis Trophy. Did Gatland bat an eyelid as he confirmed the bad news? Did he hell. There was not so much as a flicker of disappointment... not a twitch, not a twinge.

He is one of rugby's strong men, as are all graduates of the old school of New Zealand rugby, and he was damned determined not to show the slightest sign of weakness in reacting to Priestland's failure to recover from his shoulder injury to play a part in the most eagerly-awaited contest of the modern Welsh era. "It's part of sport," Gatland said, his voice flat, his tone bereft of emotion. "People get injured; you don't dwell on it. Rhys is not available, but as a player of James Hook's class is available, we can just crack on with it." Did Hook know the calls – the signals, the tactics, the overview – as well as Priestland? At last, a slight smile. "If he doesn't know the calls at this stage of the tournament, I'd be pretty disappointed," replied the man from Waikato.

Gatland knows what it is to be disappointed: certainly, his time in Wales, where he took up an extremely well-remunerated role as national coach in 2008 and delivered a Six Nations Grand Slam inside three months, has not been all sweetness and light, what with outbreaks of player indiscipline and, even more annoyingly from his point of view, open fallings-out with the local media. In an interview with this newspaper before a Test against the Wallabies in the autumn of 2009, he said: "I've always seen myself as a person who answers a straight question with a straight answer, who tells the truth, but while I'll admit to having made a couple of remarks in the past that were ill-advised, I'm not someone who seeks controversy. Some of the things that are overblown or mistranslated into something they aren't... it's crap, basically, and I don't need it. From now on, I'm tempted to stick to the blah-de-blah approach. You know the kind of thing: 'The opposition are really good, it's a big challenge, we're looking forward to it'."

Happily, he never made good on the threat, largely because it was beyond his powers. It would have been easier for a chocoholic to leave the wrapper intact. Gatland is a natural communicator in a deadpan, earthy kind of way, his message frequently sharpened by comic one-liners. Pressed yesterday on the storm-in-a-teacup issue surrounding the sudden appearance of Matt Todd, the brilliant young Canterbury flanker, at an All Black training session despite not being an accredited member of the squad – a luxury not granted to other competing nations, generally speaking – Gatland commented: "There have to be some perks when you're playing a World Cup in your own country."

His home country being here, the long-serving All Black hooker (who never made a Test appearance, thanks to the eternally cussed and astonishingly resilient Sean Fitzpatrick) is already being spoken of as the New Zealand coach-in-waiting. Roger Lewis, the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive who, a few months ago, persuaded Gatland to sign a four-year contract extension taking him past the 2015 tournament in England, is not concerned. "It's a question for Warren," he said, "but not a question I envisage having to be answered. He's made a huge commitment to our rugby and now we stand on the verge of an exciting new era. There is no opt-out in the contract for either side. It's watertight. Even if someone wanted to come and have a conversation with us – and I'm not suggesting they do – it would cost them a heck of a lot of money."

Lewis first met with Gatland at Auckland airport in the aftermath of the 2007 World Cup, at which Wales had failed to find a way out of their pool. The New Zealander was not the only name on Lewis's list of possibles: Jake White, who had just led the Springboks to the title, was in his thoughts, as were Robbie Deans, now coach of the Wallabies, and another highly-regarded New Zealander in Ian Foster. Those "other" names were quickly scrubbed.

"People didn't believe me at the time, but I knew in the first part of our conversation that he would fit with us," Lewis said. "He ticked all the boxes from the rugby side, but most importantly, he was what was required culturally. I realised he was one of us: Welsh-New Zealand, blue collar, working class, straight talking, someone who could have some fun but knew there was a line, a point where you said 'stop now, it's work time'. He has been the key pillar in our strategy."

The "one of us" element was not lost on the players, not all of whom had pulled their weight to the last ounce under Gareth Jenkins, the popular one-club coach from Llanelli who was so badly burned at the '07 World Cup. "Right from the start, Warren was brutally honest with us," said Alun Wyn Jones, the lock. "If I had to identify one characteristic, that would be it. He tells you how it is, whether you want to hear it or not." Another tight forward from Ospreys, the outstanding tight-head prop Adam Jones, said something similar. "I found I could talk to him right from the start, front-rower to front-rower if you like. He told me I had to get fit, and he told me how to get fit. If you're not fit, you can't hit all the rucks or make all the tackles – and that's the kind of thing he notices. He's been brilliant for me."

So it is that tomorrow, when Gatland and his coterie of tracksuited types enter the coaches' booth at Eden Park, his side will be 80 minutes away from achieving something unparalleled in the the Welsh game. And typically, he spent much of yesterday going out of his way to keep things in perspective: not just in the fine detail of losing Priestland – "We won't change the way we play because Rhys isn't there; we're about expressing ourselves, so if the ball is there to be moved in our own 22, we'll move it" – but across the whole wide canvas. "We're not monks," he remarked, responding to a question about alcohol bans and curfews that do not exist in the way people imagine. "I can't say we're whiter than white, because you can't keep a lid on everything. I know what it's like to be on the wrong side of the media and I don't take any pleasure in the criticism being heaped on the England party. I have some good friends in that set-up.

"What I would say is that we're ambassadors for Wales. I'd also say that from day one, we knew that if we put ourselves in good shape and stayed in good shape, we could make an impact on this tournament. So much of international coaching is about preparation time. For a Six Nations Championship, there isn't too much. For this, we've been given a good shot at it and it's made a difference. In my experience, Wales teams are dangerous when they have their backs to the wall and dangerous when they're performing with confidence. This side is very confident."