On Friday, Wales’ most successful coach Warren Gatland bows out after 12 years at the helm of the national team. Our Correspondent Richard Morgan was there for his first game in 2008, and will be there to see his swansong at Tokyo’s International Stadium. Here, he reflects on an unforgettable 12 years for the man from New Zealand.
“The thing that I’m most proud of is that we’ve earned respect from the rest of the world for what we’ve achieved in the last 12 years.”
So said Warren Gatland last week at a press conference to preview Wales’ World Cup semi\-final with South Africa. On ITV Wales before that game, I said that his comment would stand true whatever the result; and, despite that hugely disappointing loss to the Springboks, it really does. Cast your mind back, if you will, to the state of the Wales national team before Gatland took over. They’d just lost to Fiji in the World Cup, were 10th in the World rankings and, frankly, a laughing stock.
12 years later and - despite Eddie Jones’ quip at Gatland’s expense earlier this week - no one’s laughing.
Under the Kiwi’s stewardship, Wales have won three Grand Slams and a Championship title, and reached the last four of the World Cup twice, losing those games by a combined tally of 4 points.
With the New Zealander at the helm, Wales have beaten South Africa 5 times (they’d only ever beaten them once before then); Australia 3 times (including a first win over southern hemisphere opposition at a World Cup since 1987); and reached number 1 in the World Rankings for the first time ever.
In terms of achievements, he is unquestionably Welsh rugby’s most successful national coach.
And perhaps just as important as the achievements themselves is the belief he’s instilled in the players. Before the tournament I sat down with Jonathan Davies, the Wales and Lions centre, who’s only ever known a Wales team coached by Gatland, but has played with plenty who remember how it was before.
“He’s developed a winning mentality”, he told me. “Before that, Welsh rugby didn’t have the confidence to say ‘we expect to win’… now we go into games with confidence because we’ve done the work, and we know what’s needed from us.”
It’s an attitude that’s seen Wales come back from many an unpromising situation: France in Paris in the 2019 Six Nations; Fiji in Oita; France, again, in Japan two weeks ago. But for a penalty here and a refereeing decision there, we could have been contemplating a World Cup Final against England. That tough-to-beat mentality could just be Gatland’s most important legacy.
It should be said that the Kiwi’s Midas touch hasn’t penetrated every level of Welsh rugby. 12 years on, the regions remain stubbornly unsuccessful on the European stage. Getting more people participating in the sport (despite Wales’ unprecedented success) remains a challenge.
And there are those who say the ‘Warren Ball’ tactics of the national team are less than edifying to watch. Not a problem, perhaps, when Wales are winning: all too easy to criticise, as last weekend, when they’re not.
Whatever you think, it’ll be interesting to see whether Wayne Pivac, the incoming coach, can get the team playing more adventurous rugby, whilst also maintaining the success rate the supporters have come to expect.
As for the players, they haven’t seen the last of Warren Gatland yet. In December, they’ll be up against him when he coaches the Barbarians against Wales at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium. And in two years’ time, he’s sure to be reunited with some of them for the Lions series in South Africa.
For now, though, it’s one last hurrah for Gatland’s Wales, and a chance to do one of the few things he hasn’t managed - beat New Zealand. A first win over the All Blacks in 66 years would be a fitting farewell indeed.
But whatever happens on Friday, this humble New Zealander has restored Wales’ place at rugby’s top table… and for that, he’s earned the undying gratitude of a nation.