Ready for the Wallabies backlash?

Wales face a wounded and dangerous Australia side today – but coach Warren Gatland is ready for the challenge. He tells Chris Hewett why it's the perfect test of his team's World Cup credentials
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The Independent Online

There are good reasons why a quiet conversation with Warren Gatland rarely stays quiet for long; why, despite determined efforts to find himself a secluded corner somewhere, he is routinely besieged by autograph-hunting, camera-snapping strangers – often, but not always, women of a certain age – the moment he starts talking.

For one thing, he has re-established Wales as a serious power in world rugby. For another, he is one of the sport's more interesting individuals, to the extent that he has earned himself a reputation as a professional controversialist.

Gatland is entirely happy with the first development. "This is an important moment for us," says the New Zealander, who famously took Wales to a Six Nations Grand Slam at his first attempt in 2008 and is looking for a second successive victory over the Wallabies in Cardiff this evening. "We've arrived at a junction and we can go one of two ways. Am I confident we'll move in the right direction? On the whole, yes. I'm told we have a 66 per cent success rate after two years together, which is a bit better than Graham managed" – a chuckling reference to Graham Henry, his countryman, who blazed this particular coaching trail in the late 1990s – "and higher than at any time since John Dawes coached a pretty special team back in the 1970s. And there are far more games against the major southern hemisphere nations now than there were 30-odd years ago."

The second part of the equation is less to his liking. His recent suggestion that the All Blacks may have lost a little of their scariness and a comment about the Argentine scrum being a touch overrated may have kept his profile high, but he would have preferred his words to have been considered in context, rather than over-dramatised by the headline writers.

"I'm about this far away from changing my whole way of talking in public," he says, holding his thumb and finger a millimetre apart. "I've always seen myself as a person who answers a straight question with a straight answer, who tells the truth. I'll admit to having made a couple of remarks in the past that were ill-advised, but I'm not someone who seeks controversy. I've really struggled with some of the things that have happened recently, which is why I've been very quiet this week.

"That All Blacks thing wasn't raised by me. I was asked whether I felt they'd lost their aura of invincibility, and I said I thought they had, to a small degree. This was portrayed as something much stronger, and suddenly, I'm reading all this stuff from back home about me showing a lack of respect. Jeez, I played for the All Blacks, in an era when they were losing about one game in 50. No one respects the shirt more than I do. The Puma business was also overblown, mistranslated into something it wasn'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.'"

Gatland has certainly earned the right to look forward to the next World Cup, which will be held in his homeland in a little under two years' time. He has at his disposal some of the most exciting young talent in the game – James Hook, Leigh Halfpenny, Jamie Roberts and Alun-Wyn Jones are all 24 or under – and by the time 2011 comes around, they will be hardened Test players capable of prospering in the most intense environment. At the same time, the thirtysomethings – Shane Williams, Tom Shanklin, Stephen Jones, Martyn Williams – are still in the loop, kept honest by the up-and-coming likes of Dan Biggar and Sam Warburton, both blooded at Test level during the autumn, and Jon Davies, who starts today's game in midfield.

It seems Gatland understands the four-year World Cup cycle as well as anyone and better than most – a "most" that includes England, still lost in the wilderness when it comes to team-building. "Some people take this whole World Cup cycle thing more seriously than others, but I'm very definitely conscious of it and it plays a big part in my thinking," the coach says. "You don't arrive at a World Cup in the best possible shape – with depth and experience in your squad, with your players in peak physical condition– by delaying taking the hard decisions and throwing things together at the last minute."

This leads us neatly towards one of the major topics of the last few weeks: namely, what to do with older players who might easily be worth a place in the team now, but are unlikely to be going concerns in 2011. The 36-year-old England lock Simon Shaw, for example – a player with whom Gatland worked closely during his successful years at Wasps, and again with the British and Irish Lions in Springbok territory last summer. What would be his angle here?

"Simon was brilliant in South Africa and continues to perform outstandingly well," he replies, "but if I thought one of my players wasn't going to make it to a World Cup, he wouldn't be in the side. I'd say: 'Sorry, but thanks for everything.' If England really believe Simon might get to New Zealand at 38, they'll have to manage him extremely carefully. That means playing him in some internationals but not all, and somehow persuading Wasps to give him the rest he needs." (Significantly, Gatland says he is close to reaching agreement with Cardiff Blues on the handling of the 34-year-old flanker Martyn Williams, whom he is desperate to take to the World Cup).

"This is what I mean about making the tough calls," he continues. "I have a massive amount of admiration for what Clive Woodward achieved back in 2003. He identified the players he wanted, gave them the experience they needed and made England incredibly difficult to beat at Twickenham, which in turn gave them the confidence to go to the really difficult places abroad and win. I'm doing everything I can here to replicate that.

"Where England let it slip was post-World Cup. If I'd been in charge, I would have been asking myself a whole lot of hard questions. Do I need to change a winning coaching staff to freshen things up? Do certain players need replacing, even though they're still performing well? Might it be that I need to go myself? That process didn't really happen, it seems to me.

"A lot of valuable resources were wasted as a result and the current situation isn't helped by standards in the Premiership. England won the World Cup six years ago because of the Premiership, which was incredibly attritional and competitive. It isn't as strong now. A number of top coaches – Ian McGeechan, Philippe Saint-André, Dean Ryan, Dean Richards – are gone, there's a big injury list, some of the best foreign players have returned home and some of the best English ones have moved to France. Mix all those ingredients together and there's bound to be a decline."

All things considered, then, Gatland is working in the right country at the right moment, and victory over the Wallabies for only the third time in the professional era would sharpen the sense of optimism around Welsh rugby. The coach accepts that the All Blacks remain "a little out of reach for now", but he sees no reason why his players should be fazed by Australia.

"What do I expect from the Wallabies? I think the whole psychology of the contest is fascinating," he says. "Let's be honest: they should be playing for a Grand Slam and they'll be disappointed they aren't. How they respond to that disappointment will be a big factor. They might feel flat after throwing away the Ireland and Scotland games; on the other hand, they might say to themselves 'we're not going home without a big performance, because if we do it'll be a bloody long summer'.

"We have to assume they'll really come after us, which gives us a chance to improve the areas of our game that need some work: the absorption of pressure and the nailing of opportunities when they arise. The big southern hemisphere teams are still the best in those departments, and with a World Cup on the horizon, we need to close the gap."