Warren Gatland: 'I enjoy coaching teams that are not fulfilling their potential. Wales fulfil those criteria...'

Brian Viner Interview: There is a fresh spring in the step of Welsh rugby after the appointment of a shrewd New Zealander as coach. And, with a trip to Twickenham looming next week, he has a bit of form when it comes to beating England
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whatever February and March hold, January has been a month of coups for the new Wales rugby coach Warren Gatland. First, it was confirmed that Shaun Edwards, the highly-rated Wasps coach, will soon be getting well acquainted with the M4, dividing his time between Adams Park and the Vale of Glamorgan Hotel, where the Welsh hunker down during the Six Nations Championship. That was already an open secret. But Gatland had a further card up his sleeve. In a press conference last week he also confirmed that he has teased the talismanic flanker Martyn Williams out of international retirement. And Ospreys No 8 Ryan Jones was unveiled as the new Wales captain. The Welsh press corps was abuzz.

When he sat down with me afterwards, Gatland did not seem like a man who had just given the Welsh dragon its teeth after a disastrous World Cup campaign and the abrupt sacking of his predecessor Gareth Jenkins. The 44-year-old New Zealander is a quietly-spoken fellow, bordering on dour except for the flashes of humour that occasionally illuminate his solemn brown eyes, as for instance when I asked whether he felt unfortunate to have been an All Blacks hooker in the age of the great Sean Fitzpatrick and thus to have spent four years warming the bench? "A little bit, particularly as I was a better player than he was," Gatland said.

But first things first. It is only three months since Gatland was securely ensconced in his homeland, coaching Waikato, where he once played with distinction. He admitted to me that he remains somewhat taken aback by the turn of events that have placed him in the middle of a particularly dismal south Wales winter while his wife and two children – aged 14 and 12 – warm their toes on the beaches back home.

"I'd been away for eight or nine years [coaching Ireland, then Wasps] and I had some great experiences in the northern hemisphere, but I wanted and expected to be based in New Zealand for a number of years. So when they [the Welsh Rugby Union] made their decision on Gareth, whether that was premature or not, and came to me and said 'you're the guy we want, you're our No 1 choice', that's when I started to panic a little bit and thought 'I've got to make some decisions here'."

Family-wise, it was the trickiest of decisions. Rugby-wise, it was the easiest. "My wife's coming over for the last couple of weeks of the Six Nations, and the kids will come over for a period in April to see how they like things here, but for the first 12 months we'll all perhaps do a little commuting. The fact is that even if they were here they wouldn't see that much of me. I remember [the All Blacks and former Wales coach] Graham Henry telling me that he is away from home 200 days of the year. And professionally, I have always enjoyed the challenge of coaching teams that are not fulfilling their potential." A short chuckle. "Wales definitely fulfilled those criteria."

Gatland did not elaborate on his interesting use of the word "premature" in connection with Jenkins being sacked, but conceded that he felt sympathy for the Llanelli man.

"I've a lot of time for him as a person, he's a passionate Welshman, and if our paths cross I hope we can shake hands and have a beer. Wales were very unlucky in the World Cup. Nine times out of 10 they would have beaten Fiji [a reference to the 38-34 defeat that prompted Jenkins' exit], and look at the way Fiji played against South Africa. I find it quite strange that I'm here, but I'm hugely excited about the chance to be involved at the top level again. There's nothing like the week of an international, playing in front of a full house. They're great occasions."

His first such occasion as Wales coach will come a week tomorrow in the testing arena of Twickenham, with the shrewd and inspirational Edwards alongside him. There are some – and Gatland is prominent among them – who think that the Rugby Football Union was potty not to give the former rugby league international a senior coaching job with the England team, but it did not, and Gatland pounced, begging some obvious questions about Edwards and conflicts of interest. For example, with eight Wasps players in the England squad, will he not be tempted to pump his right-hand man for information?

A wry smile. "I know quite a lot about those guys anyway, but yes, there's some apprehension from all parties. England will be worried about what Shaun knows about their players; the Wasps players know what things he'll be concentrating on with us in training; the Welsh regions will worry that he'll go back to Wasps knowing plenty about their players. There may be some transfer of information, but as players and coaches we don't worry too much about that. We worry more about ourselves than the English."

Of course, it is one thing having Edwards in the Welsh camp – it's a name with considerable form in Welsh rugby – but I told Gatland that a few English hearts fluttered, and maybe a few Welsh stomachs turned, at reports that the Wasps captain Lawrence Dallaglio might be following him.

No smile this time. "It's amazing, that an innocuous conversation can turn into a story about him coming on the coaching staff. Lawrence is the best captain I have ever seen in the game, a great leader, and he's retiring. I told him we'd welcome it if at any stage he wanted to come down and see a training session. I felt a few of our youngsters could have a chat with him round a table and would get something out of it."

For obvious reasons, Gatland does not subscribe to the belief that international players from the major rugby-playing countries should be coached by a fellow passport-holder. But Wales being coached by a Welshman fits his vision of the future, he said. "Now is maybe not the right time, but when I leave in four years I would love to see one or two Welshmen with their hands up saying they are ready to take the job. There is a huge amount of tribalism and parochialism in Wales, and it breeds mistrust. If someone comes here to coach from Llanelli or Cardiff, they have automatically got a bit of history. We have to break that down. There is a huge amount of coaching ability here, but not much success at the highest level. I hope I can impart that knowledge."

He is not the only Kiwi who can put some pride back into Welsh rugby, he added. "Despite the disappointment of the World Cup, I still think we produce influential players, guys like Justin Marshall at Ospreys, and Xavier Rush at Blues, whose confidence transfers to the Welsh players. What they have is self-belief, the confidence whether they're playing away or at home that if they're good enough they will win the game. That's what we need going to Twickenham, because a lot of it is going to be in the head, the belief that we can get a result. Ospreys beat Gloucester [32-15 in the Heineken Cup] and Gloucester are at the top of the Guinness Premiership ... I hope a lot of those players came away thinking that they could so something similar at Twickenham for Wales."

Gatland knows what it feels like to upset the form book by beating England. At Lansdowne Road in 2001 his Irish team torpedoed English hopes of a Grand Slam with a famous 20-14 victory, finishing level on points with England. Yet by the end of that year Gatland had lost his job. I asked whether that still rankles, and whether the adrenaline will perchance be flowing more when he crosses the Irish Sea than the Severn Bridge?

"It rankled at the time," he said. "It was a massive surprise to be told my contract was not going to be renewed, but maybe it was the best thing that ever happened, because if I'd stayed in Ireland I wouldn't have had the opportunity to coach Wasps [whom he led to three successive Premiership titles and the Heineken Cup].

"Also, I was Ireland's ninth coach in the 1990s, so to get four years was an achievement and man, I learnt a lot in those four years, about politics and committees and all that stuff. I'm a better coach because of it and I have still never applied for a rugby job. People have always come looking for me and I'm really proud of that. Of course, I'm looking forward to going to Croke Park. My first game back at Lansdowne Road was the semi-final of the European Cup when Wasps beat Munster, which was a great day for me personally, and I got a fantastic reception. I still have a huge number of friends in Ireland. And I know that decision [to sack him] was only made by three or four individuals. There were others on the board as surprised as I was."

Speaking of surprise, I steered him back to his eyebrow-raising contention that he was a better hooker than the great Sean Brian Thomas Fitzpatrick.

"But you have to believe that," he protested, with a grin. "Obviously I had huge respect for him, but if you don't believe you're better [than the incumbent] then you probably should not be there. I had four years with the All Blacks, and played 17 times, but never in full internationals. In today's game I would probably have 40 caps. But I don't regret that, because it has given me more respect for the jersey. I was always conscious of my privileged position. I knew there were plenty of people who would give their right arm just to be on the bus like I was. But also, being on the bench all that time helped my development as a coach. I watched and learnt, and stayed behind at training just to watch Grant Fox kick. It all helped to make me what I am."

Which is what, precisely? Is there such a thing as a Warren Gatland way of playing rugby?

"I think there is. It's a pretty exciting game, keeping the ball in play. It's about players enjoying themselves. It's a Kiwi game in many ways, but I learnt in Ireland [where he coached Connacht before joining the national team] that there were things we did naturally in New Zealand that elsewhere you have to coach, like hitting the rucks low. In Ireland I had to get back to basics, looking at foot movement, body position.

"And sometimes you look at the players you have and realise it limits the kind of game you want to play. With this squad we need to work on mobility, especially in the front row. But their position of 10th in the world rankings belies their talent. We have a tour of New Zealand in 2010 and I have a dream of taking them to the World Cup in 2011, having beaten some southern hemisphere teams, full of confidence."

By then he fully expects to be singing "Mae hen wlad fy nhadau" ("Land Of My Fathers") as lustily as anyone from the Valleys. "I'm trying to learn it phonetically at the moment," he said. "A member of the public came to me and said he wanted to see the players singing it with their hands on their hearts. I told him I needed to learn it myself first." Maybe one day he'll know it as well as the haka.