Jamie Corrigan: Gatland brings the 70s flair back into fashion
The Way I See It: Phillips was restrained onthefloor outside a McDonald's. His ego seemed supersized
Monday 27 February 2012
Contrary to what you may have been led to believe recently, a foreign manager of a British national team doesn't have to be a money-grabbing short-term mercenary with no connection to the land and no pride in the jersey. And, believe it or not, some of them can actually speak pretty good English.
Andy Flower is a glorious example of why it can pay to look overseas to find the overseer, as are so many of our Olympic coaches. Yet Warren Gatland is the finest example, with a success story that should be typed up, bound and sent to any association looking for a new man. The Kiwi has lifted Welsh rugby to a position it suspected it might never see again. Thanks to him, in Wales the Seventies flair is back in fashion.
Gatland needed the talent to come along and so it did in a variety of shapes and sizes. In Sam Warburton, a captain with leadership in his DNA; in George North, a winger with a JCB in his DNA; in so many others with TRY in their DNA. Yet it was Gatland who blooded them, moulded them, slammed them and loved them. He has made them what they are today and today they just happen to be the first Welsh team to have won a Triple Crown at Twickenham. A third Grand Slam in eight years should be the very least of their ambition.
Saturday evening witnessed a classic Gatland moment. Scott Williams was the match-winner, the hero who had pinched the ball out of the hands of Courtney Lawes, like a modern-day Artful Dodger relieving the Incredible Hulk of his Rolex. By any estimation the 21-year-old, who might be considered ahead of his years in any other team, deserved the obligatory champagne shower for his audacious try.
What did he find in the dressing room? There was Mr Gatland, ready to raise one of Williams' arms in celebration – and ready to perform a one-armed Nelson with the other.
"I asked Scott if he scored that try to make up for the other one he botched up," said Gatland, before taking time out from all the hwyl and the hype to point out his side had been nowhere as good as they could be. "Potentially this side could be outstanding," said Gatland.
Real potential, that is. Not "potential" potential. That was all Wales could boast for so long. When Gatland joined in 2008, the place was a shambles. It was as if the 2005 Grand Slam under Mike Ruddock had never happened. Gareth Jenkins wasn't able to transfer club expertise to international level and a team including the likes of Shane Williams, Adam Jones, Gareth Thomas and Martyn Williams could not even qualify from the group stages at the 2007 World Cup.
Credit to Roger Lewis, the Welsh Rugby Union chief executive, because he acted quickly and decisively and chose wisely. Gatland was whipped from underneath the Rugby Football Union's nose and so the rebuilding began. An immediate Grand Slam showed the former All Black hooker meant business.
But then Gatland encountered the central problem in Wales. The goldfish bowl made dopes of them all. Gatland craved his players to step up and take responsibility on the pitch, yet all he received from them was ill-discipline as they threatened to sink back into the myth of Welsh superstardom.
Wales couldn't think for themselves – "take ownership" as the jargon goes. What Andy Powell did do was "take a golf buggy" and drive it up the M4. This wasn't a lone piece of lunacy. Players were involved in booze-fuelled tear-ups and as recently as last June, Mike Phillips, many people's idea of Wales's key man at scrum-half, was pictured being restrained by bouncers on the floor outside a Cardiff McDonald's – in the early hours of a Tuesday. The word was his ego was supersized.
Gatland battled for control, banning Phillips, as he had Powell, as he had two of his coaching set-up who fought each other after a win against Ireland. It was in danger of going the shape of a pear as the World Cup approached.
Then it happened. Gatland made the call, placed the bet, and gambled on the kids coming through. So much for the four-year cycle. Six weeks in New Zealand and all the potential was unlocked. North, Warburton and Leigh Halfpenny had been thrown in already, but they were joined by Toby Faletau, Rhys Priestland, Scott Williams and others. Gatland had discovered the modern breed of professional, a breed not brought up in the old down-a-pint-with-a-pair-of-pants-on-your-head fraternity. Here was a bunch who would police themselves, who understood what it took to give themselves the edge. Gatland gave youth its head and that youth used its head.
Wales will applaud Gatland for it and will go on applauding. They don't give a damn if he is a Taff, an American, a Korean, a whatever. He is one of them, he has earned their adoration. Warren Gatland: the New Zealander who got the Welsh singing off the same hymn sheet.
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