Welsh dragons: Secrets of a red revolution

How did Warren Gatland transform Wales from World Cup whipping boys to stars of the Six Nations? James Corrigan reveals just how the Dragon rediscovered its fire
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The Independent Online

It was only 12 months and one week ago when England and Wales last squared up, but in that period there has been a reversal in fortunes that has been as definite as it has been dramatic. It is fair to say that Wales have gone "flip" and England have gone "flop".

Certainly the bookmakers think so. Yesterday Ladbrokes revealed to The Independent that, since they began pricing up rugby matches in the early Eighties, Wales have never been a shorter price to beat their dear neighbours. Those odds of 1-5 seemed such an unlikely scenario when Warren Gatland led his team into south-west London looking for their first victory at Twickenham in two decades.

A few months earlier Wales had suffered an ignominious, group stage exit from the World Cup and on the way home sacked their fourth coach in as many years. England, meanwhile, had gone all the way to that final in France.

Fast forward 80 bizarre minutes, one resounding comeback and from there a full union year containing a dozen internationals for both sides and Wales have a Grand Slam, a southern hemisphere scalp and now a world ranking of four to show for their resurgence. And for England? Well, the less said them about them the better. Perhaps Martin Johnson could take note of what Gatland did to effect one of the more remarkable turnarounds in international sport.

The trouble for Johnson is that Gatland is and was a proven coach and if one is minded to pose the question how he was able to put all that puff and magic back into the dragon so quickly, one is likely to receive a "because he's bloody good" response. Furthermore, he was allowed to appoint bloody good coaches around him, not least his old sergeant major at Wasps, Shaun Edwards. This was a crucial factor in the makeover, some will say "the" crucial factor, as, unlike two of his predecessors, Mike Ruddock and Gareth Jenkins, Gatland could march into the fray with his own men on his arm. They could start the fight afresh, on their terms, and do so with the most underused ammunition at their disposal.

"One of the reasons I took the job was that Wales were 10th in the rankings and there was not too far to go below that," explained Gatland in The Resurrection Men, Paul Rees' fine account of Wales' second Grand Slam in four seasons. "I saw the potential and the ability within the squad and realised that, with the security of knowing I would have a couple of years in the job, I could change things by putting structures in place. The talent was there. It was just a matter of finding the switch."

As it was, Gatland did not need those "couple of years"; the canny Kiwi located that "on" button" in double-quick time. And at Murrayfield on Sunday it appeared that Wales are set to shine even brighter. There were five steps to this "Bread of Heaven":

1. Attitude

On his first official day in office – 1 December 2007 – Gatland told the players just what would be expected of them. Nothing new there. Except for the fact that Gatland was at the Dubai Sevens and relayed his message to the squad via a live interview with BBC Wales. "Imagine there's a mirror – when you come off the pitch I want you to look into it and say, 'I tried really hard today'," he told the stunned interviewer. "I will try to break some players physically and mentally, to find out how tough they really are. And I am going to let them know I am trying to break them."

It was just what the experts wanted to hear. "There had been a soft culture... there had been player power, too," said Jonathan Davies. "Now all of that has been taken out. Above all, the thing I have been really impressed with during Warren's short time in Wales is that the bullshit is gone. In Wales there are always Chinese whispers and 'I heard this on the grapevine', but that doesn't happen now, because the coach is bluntly honest."

Last week, Gatland admitted that when he arrived "we had to weed out the rubbish". At the time reporters took this to mean specific personnel and while that is, in some respects, true, insiders at the Welsh camp have since emphasised that Gatland was talking chiefly about the attitude. He weeded out the notion that there could be more than one boss. Granted, he gave his coaches their head and encouraged players to voice their input, but there would be no doubt who had the final decision. And if, at first, they did not quite grasp that, then they needed only to look at the team sheet. Then they understood.

2. Selection

If three words can best sum up Gatland's reign so far it is those that he uttered at his first team selection – "Nobody is safe". In that instant he tore down perhaps the biggest myth in Welsh rugby: that some players were born to wear that red shirt and it would be their right to do so. The big drawback over this illusion is all too obvious. Over to Davies again.

"There had been a lack of competition for places; a lack of pride, even," he said. "There was a comfort zone." Soon every inch of the Vale Hotel became "a discomfort zone", particularly in the countdown to selection time. A few, supposed "untouchables" duly received the hand-off.

Take Dwayne Peel and James Hook, not jettisoned out of the XV because of any attitude problem but purely because Mike Phillips and Stephen Jones were considered better options. Peel and Hook were instructed to fight for their places and have done just that, giving Gatland a bench that is the envy of Europe. Meanwhile a few other unmentionables were deemed to have egos larger than their will to improve and have never been seen at base camp again.

Yet it is not just the players left out, but also the players brought in. While Ryan Jones was a gem of an appointment as captain and Martyn Williams the nugget dug out of retirement, Lee Byrne has been his most precious find; a full-back written off as too flaky by previous coaches but who, at 28, has emerged as arguably the finest No 15 in the game. "I am not one who has preconceived ideas about players," declared Gatland. "I make up my own mind." Strewth, does he.

"The message is clear. There's no comfort zone during matches, because any mistake is highlighted and explained and then – maybe – you get dropped," explained Davies. "There is not even a comfort zone in training. It's competitive."

3. Training

Ask the senior Welsh players for the biggest distinction between this regime and the previous regimes and the answer is always "the training". And the adjective to describe it is invariably "intense". Or "brutal".

Where they were once used to two-hour sessions where they would invariably "go through the motions" – the word is that the players refused to do more than one full-contact session for the duration of the World Cup – now the training is of the "short", the "sharp" and, most definitely, the "shock" variety.

"You have to replicate in training what happens during a match," is the way Gatland sees it. "You have to have intensity and put yourselves under pressure so when a game comes around everyone is prepared for it physically and mentally. Yes, at times we make things harder in training than they will be in a match."

Sometimes the session will last only 40 minutes – and never more than an hour – and the team meetings just 30 minutes. But every second is made to count. Training is videoed and analysed and faults are picked up like they would be in a match debrief. Bollockings are dished out accordingly. "We are all living on the edge," said the centre Gavin Henson. "Everyone knows they are one bad training session from not being picked. It means people are working as hard as they can."

This time around, they are working harder than ever. Gatland believes Wales are now 20 per cent fitter than they were when he arrived and is adamant that this has helped them perfect their style of rugby as they keep the ball in hand and incessantly test the opposing defence.

Against Scotland they looked fitter in body and in mind than they did in the last Championship and Neil Jenkins, their kicking coach, revealed on Monday how the bar and the pulse-counts were raised when the squad reconvened at the end of last month. "That first week of training was about pushing the players to their limit, both mentally and physically," Jenkins said. "A year ago I don't think that would have come through that. I'd go as far to say that our training was harder than a game."

4. Match time

I promise you that we will work really hard on scrum, line-out, contact areas and defence. If we do well in those areas we can take it on. We can't throw away what you could call the Welsh style, but it is about blending the free spirit with the basics.

When Wales won the Grand Slam in 2005 not everyone was overly impressed with their run-everything game plan. Famously Dick Best, the former England coach, claimed it had been "built on sand" and that the success would be shortlived. Best was proved correct, although even he could not have foreseen how correct. What structure Mike Ruddock had been allowed by a mutinous bunch to introduce was soon thrown aside and by the time of the World Cup there was something approaching oval ball anarchy. It was interesting to revisit Best this week and see what he thinks now, especially as in Edinburgh they seemed to have taken a few more notable hops forward.

"Wales have a professionalism, a style, a confidence and a conviction about everything they are doing," he said. "They are just doing the basics very, very well. Wales are powerful, they are winning ball, they are scrummaging well, their lineout looks improved and they recycle it quickly which stretches defences. But, above all, they are at the stage where their players don't even have to look when they pass it because they now have such an understanding that they know there will always be someone there."

There is more, of course. Much, much more. Wales, employing Edwards' blitz defence system, happened to let in fewer tries (two) in the 2008 Championship than any team before them. Then there is the fitness factor and Gatland's readiness to go to his replacements, best evidenced by last season's stunning statistic of them winning their second halves 107-24. Gatland and Edwards have confirmed themselves as shrewd readers of the game, as has the skills coach, Robert Howley.

5. Magic time

But it is not all team, team, team, train, train, train, tactic, tactic, tactic. In Shane Williams, Wales have the most entertaining individual in northern hemisphere rugby, who is normally let loose once the hard work has been done and, in Ryan Jones' words "we've earned the right to the white". "And there's the point," said Barry John. "Gatland has forged this tight unit but at the same time encouraged his players not to be clones, to remain individuals and not to be scared of trying things. It is surely the mix Wales have long been looking for."

Breathing fire: Gatland's record

Gatland took over as head coach in December 2007.

Played 12 Won 8 Lost 4.

Points for 291; Points against 239.

Game by game:

2008

2 Feb England 19 Wales 26

9 Feb Wales 30 Scotland 15

23 Feb Wales 47 Italy 8

8 Mar Ireland 12 Wales 16

15 Mar Wales 29 France 12.

7 Jun South Africa 43 Wales 17

14 Jun South Africa 37 Wales 21

8 Nov Wales 15 South Africa 20

14 Nov Wales 34 Canada 13

22 Nov Wales 9 New Zealand 29

29 Nov Wales 21 Australia 18

2009

8 Feb Scotland 13 Wales 26.

If Wales win in Cardiff on Saturday they will equal England and France's record of winning eight Six Nations matches in succession.

Gatland's support team

Shaun Edwards (Assistant coach)

Much-travelled Wasps coach made his name in rugby league before switching codes. Enjoyed huge success captaining Wigan to eight titles and nine cups before being named backs coach at Wasps in 2001. Turned down position with England to assist Gatland.

Rob Howley (Skills coach)

Legendary figure in Welsh rugby, won 59 caps for Wales, 22 as captain. Made debut for his country in 1996. Represented Bridgend, Cardiff and Wasps before retiring in 2004 after a wrist injury. Took up coaching position at Cardiff before being given role with Wales last year.

Neil Jenkins (Kicking skills coach)

Former fly-half won 87 caps for his country (scoring 1,049 points) and also represented the Lions four times. Held the record for most international points between 1999 and 2008, when he was usurped by Jonny Wilkinson. Club career included spells at Pontypridd, Cardiff and Celtic Warriors.

Robin McBryde (Forwards coach)

Former hooker who won 37 caps for Wales between 1994 and 2005, helping country to Grand Slam on final appearace. Enjoyed fine club career with Swansea and Llanelli before retiring following spinal surgery. Won "Wales' Strongest Man" competition in 1992.

Craig White (Conditioning coach)

Joined coaching team last May, after being named by Gatland in his dream line-up. Works with the Blues and Dragons on fitness. Previously worked in similar roles with Leicester, Wasps, Ireland and the Lions, as well as with Bolton Wanderers football club.

Alan Phillips (Team manager and selector)

Former Cardiff hooker, 54, who made 25 appearances for Wales between 1979 and 1987. Part of Lions team who toured South Africa in 1980. Appointed team manager in 2002, succeeding David Pickering.

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