Warren Gatland admission only adds to Welsh woe – and more pain could come at World Cup

Gatland’s return as head coach has not provided the turnaround that the WRU hoped after lurching from crisis to crisis

Harry Latham-Coyle
Thursday 15 June 2023 07:41 BST
Warren Gatland has admitted he was not aware of the scale of problems Welsh rugby faced
Warren Gatland has admitted he was not aware of the scale of problems Welsh rugby faced (Getty Images)

Warren Gatland stopped short of saying that he regretted his return to Wales, but the tone of his comments could hardly have been more plain. “When I came into the Six Nations, I had no idea,” the Welsh head coach said to the BBC of the problems that have beset him and his side during a frightful start to his second stint in charge. “I didn’t realise a lot of the things that were going on and the issues that were behind rugby and the squad and the players. At the time if I had known, I would have made a different decision and probably gone somewhere else.”

When the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) re-appointed the popular New Zealander last December, the hope was of a quick fix, a proven short-term schemer the right man to reinvigorate a side that had been drifting towards a World Cup disaster under Wayne Pivac. Gatland was the proverbial safe pair of hands to guide the team out of choppy waters.

Things have not gone as planned. In these last six months, Welsh rugby has lurched from crisis to crisis. First came the allegations of sexism and misogyny within the WRU, which precipitated the resignation of a chief executive and a cultural review. Then, as the sport’s financial problems were laid bare, there was the threat of strike action before the marquee clash with England in Cardiff as many professional players fretted over contract uncertainty.

If the international success of the first Gatland premiership papered over cracks apparent within the Welsh game, then in these last few months it has all been laid bare. Remember, also, that Gatland’s attempt to re-appoint Rob Howley, sent home from the 2019 World Cup after breaching betting rules, as attack coach ahead of the Six Nations was blocked by the union.

The problems have continued into the summer. After going early by naming a 54-player World Cup squad in May, Gatland was rocked by the retirements of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric, before Rhys Webb elected to withdraw from consideration, too. Lock Cory Hill, unable to source a club in Europe, has also been forced out of contention, while Rhys Carre’s ejection from the squad was rather inconsiderately conveyed in a public declaration that the prop had “failed to meet performance targets”.

The Welsh ship may be listing but Gatland has not proved the steady hand on the tiller, either, repeatedly steering it on to the rocks. His comments as the sexism allegations were highlighted on the eve of the Six Nations were clumsy at best, while his muddled team selections prevented a young squad from forging crucial connections in the midst of a tournament run that brought significant woe. Wales will head into their warm-up fixtures with barely even a handful of certain starters.

Then, just days after a fifth-placed finish was confirmed, the Wales head coach picked a British and Irish Lions 23 in his column for The Telegraph, including not a single Welshman among his selection. As a motivational tool, perhaps there was some merit in clearly evidencing how he viewed a squad that probably would not provide many tourists were the Lions away this summer, but for a head coach to so publicly disparage his players seemed curious. Certainly, the withdrawals of Jones, Tipuric and Webb do not paint a picture of a happy camp, even if all three may have had their individual reasons for wishing to step away.

Gatland’s latest remarks appear oddly pitched, too, with apparent cricitism of young centre Joe Hawkins’s decision to move to Exeter - “I was just really surprised that a 20-year-old would throw away the chance to be involved in international rugby” - surely a misjudgement given all of the doubt caused by the lack of clarity over regional budgets for next season.

Perhaps this, though, is all part of the plan. Gatland feels Welsh teams play their best rugby when backed into a corner. “What gives me an edge or a buzz is when the expectations aren’t there or the challenges appear to be greater. That drives me even more,” Gatland explained to Scrum V. “If some of the Welsh media can keep writing us off that would be great because they’re doing us a huge favour.

“It’s allowing us to come in under the radar and there’s nothing the Welsh boys love better than being written off and backs-to-the-wall, they tend to respond to that.”

They will have to. While part of the reason for both Wales and England moving to new regimes so close to the World Cup was a perceived easier route to the final away from France, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand on the other side of the draw, Gatland’s French itinerary could yet prove mighty tough. Australia would appear to be making more optimistic movements under Eddie Jones, while Georgia beat Pivac’s Wales last November. A meeting with Fiji will mean the memories of Nantes in 2007 will be all too easily recalled. Welsh rugby’s pain could yet continue before this annus horribilis is out.

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