Autumn has so often been the cruellest of seasons for Warren Gatland. Each time, Wales have promised to deliver against rugby’s big three and each time they have come up agonisingly short.
Autumn 2014 has once again read like any time under Gatland’s tenure, Wales on Saturday in the 34-16 loss to New Zealand succumbing to their 26th defeat in 27 attempts against the All Blacks, Australia or South Africa.
The riddle continues of why Wales always get so close but never cross the line. It has led some, including Lions hooker Shane Bryne, to question Gatland’s future as head coach in the aftermath of a match where Wales had been level pegging for 69 minutes only to ship 19 points to the All Blacks before the end.
Byrne’s argument is thus: “Warren Gatland will always go down as one of the greatest coaches and, particularly for Wales, he’s done fantastic things but sometimes that’s still not enough. Sometimes it needs change, freshening up, new ideas, a new way of approaching things and a new spirit in the squad.”
Those with the temerity to suggest such a course of action were shot down with, it has to be said, some venom by Gatland’s No 2, Shaun Edwards, in a feisty response to the post-weekend criticism.
Asked if he felt Gatland was under pressure, Edwards virtually spat out his response: “What do you mean pressure? Being a Test match rugby coach, every game has pressure. Being any sort of coach, any game has pressure.
“I don’t understand what you mean. What do you mean? Do you think he’s going to get sacked? What are you saying?
“Every game has pressure. If you coach Wigan Under-11s you get pressure. Everyone’s under pressure, every single game’s a pressure game. If you’re coaching a Sunday League team you’re under pressure to win a game.”
For all Edwards’ admirable backing of the man who brought him into the Wales set-up, it has to be countered that results suggest the national team are struggling. This is their worst calendar year since 2010 and, under Gatland’s entire tenure, they have a record of 33 wins, one draw and 35 defeats, 26 of them against the aforementioned big three.
Edwards, though, opposed the argument that a string of defeats have put Gatland under pressure ahead of a World Cup year with the suggestion: “So what about if you win three Six Nations?”
While Gatland may at times have wanted to relocate to his native New Zealand in autumn, spring has so often been Wales’ annual coming of age, with two Six Nations titles in the last three years.
The Wales Rugby Union is not about to make Gatland a scapegoat for Wales’ failures, the belief being that he is the man to once again turn around the nation’s fortunes, as he did in 2011 when Wales were a kick away from a place in the World Cup final a year after winning just two of their 12 2010 Test matches. Not to mention the fact he remains popular with his players.
But there is no denying that despite the post-match suggestion from Gatland himself that England, Ireland and Scotland scarcely have a much better record against the southern-hemisphere tourists, Wales are in dire need of victory over South Africa on Saturday.
It is an increasing mental issue for coaching staff and players alike, the opposition too. What will the Springboks think if they go into half-time behind on Saturday? In the second Test against Wales on their own turf in the summer, the Boks had been 17-0 behind and then faced a 30-17 deficit but managed 14 unanswered points to win at the death.
Looking ahead to the game at the Millennium Stadium, Edwards said: “We have had some great battles with South Africa over the years and we hope it is a compelling game for the fans, and we hope we can get on the right side of the scoreboard this time.
“I asked the players after the [All Blacks] game ‘can we raise ourselves to that sort of intensity, passion and physicality and aggression levels that we had for 69 minutes, can we do that in seven days?’ To a man, they all said ‘yes’.
“Are they there at the moment? No, they are quite substantially off it but we don’t play for another four days.”
There has been an element of the walking wounded at the Wales team hotel just outside Cardiff. Prop Nicky Smith has been ruled out injured while Gethin Jenkins is a doubt, so Scarlets prop Rob Evans is training with the squad this week.
Meanwhile, the contingent of those playing in England, Paul James, Richard Hibbard and James Hook, have all returned to their respective clubs with the game falling outside the internationally recognised autumn window for Test rugby.
In addition, George North is currently following concussion protocol, while Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb are still being assessed by Wales’ medical staff, with players given until tomorrow to prove their fitness for match-day selection.
Whichever players take the field in Cardiff on Saturday, victory is the sole prerequisite but Edwards argued that, slowly and surely, Wales were edging towards that goal.
“We’ve have two games [against Australia and New Zealand] at this level,” he added. “While it was a long time ago when I played rugby, I always remember that at the start of a season the first two games you really struggled and the third game you really should be able to handle that sort of intensity.
“We’ve had two games and, in both, we have acquitted ourselves relatively well and now we have to do it for 80 minutes to beat a southern hemisphere team.”Reuse content