So Warren Gatland enters the final phase of his 12 years as coach of Wales.
Phase one included the exuberance of the 2008 Grand Slam following the 2007 World Cup debacle up until the 2012 Grand Slam. Included in this is obviously the 2011 World Cup semifinal. And let’s not forget that the 2013 6 Nations was under the much-maligned Rob Howley while Gatland was preparing for 2013 Lions.
Phase two, was, in my opinion, the period that followed the 2013 Lions to the 2016 6 Nations. Before he went on sabbatical again to prepare for the Lions. It was also where Warrenball lost its effectiveness against the best teams in the world, although getting out of the “group of death” at the 2015 World Cup was notable. The failure, however, in the quarter-final against South Africa left us all wanting more.
There came a hint of a transition in style in the 2016 Autumn series and 2017 6 Nations under Rob Howley (once again as caretaker) without much success where there appeared to be a new recipe that was confused by selecting the same tired, predictable ingredients.
It feels as if Wales were in a tactical stasis between the two Lions tours of Australia and New Zealand and that this was Gatland’s real legacy building phase. From the moment that Jamie Roberts crossed the line in Sydney, it feels like his focus was on Auckland and 2017. And who can blame him – the chance, finally, to coach a team that could maybe stand up to the All Blacks. Was he auditioning for the job that he must covet? If he was, it doesn’t feel like he is any closer to it after the drawn series. Or does it? I guess it depends on who you ask.
There’s also a sense that he has been in the northern hemisphere for too long for the NZ public and press. Would they take him back?
And so we arrive at phase three. As Steven and Gareth have said many times in recent vlogs, Gatland is now focusing on one singular prize, and that is a third tilt at a World Cup.
Following on from the Lions 2017, we witnessed the adoption of some of the tactical principles seen in that series. Albeit, in a slightly unpolished form, as was evident in the first international of the 2017 Autumn series against Australia.
Certainly fans in Wales are supportive of this change and the opportunity for more talent like Steff Evans and Owen Williams in the backs and the slick-handling Rob Evans at prop. There is obviously a long, long way to go and much heartbreak on that journey… I’ll let you know how my trip to Cardiff goes for the All Blacks game this weekend, but I’m expecting heartbreak – especially with the loss of Jonathan Davies.
But has Warren Gatland’s focus really changed? Or is this still just another opportunity to audition for the All Blacks job, this time showing that he can coach a team that plays rugby with its head up rather than charging at a defensive channel with its head down.
One thing is for sure, Warren Gatland always plays with his head up.
Author: Richard Pugh
I have lived in London almost all of my life but I was born in North Wales and remain a proud Welshman. I am a keen follower of rugby union and a range of other sports such as football, tennis and cricket. Thanks to The 1014, and the encouragement of my NZ journalist partner, I am having a go at putting some of my thoughts down to share with others. I hope you enjoy them.
And here’s a photo of one of the world’s finest scrum halves with Aaron Smith 😃