Six months of chaos leaves Warren Gatland staring down the barrel of his greatest challenge

Wales head coach Warren Gatland

When Warren Gatland returned to Wales late last year, he had no idea what he was getting himself into.

At the time of his appointment, many of Welsh rugby's problems were well-documented.

Protracted negotiations over how much money the WRU would pass to the regions were seemingly never-ending and there was already player unrest, given their own financial futures were uncertain once again.

The returning Wales boss will have known this. But he had no idea just how many fires burned in Welsh rugby.

"I wish I would have known a few things that were going on," he said.

In the six months since he came back, the game in Wales has been in a tailspin.

As he prepared for the Six Nations, his only competitive rugby before the World Cup later this year, allegations of misogyny and sexism within the Welsh Rugby Union rocked the organisation.

They sparked an external investigation and the resignation of the man who brokered Gatland's return, CEO Steve Phillips - though none of the allegations related to him personally.

Players then threatened to strike ahead of the match against England earlier this year with a financial agreement between the WRU and regions still painfully absent.

Since the Six Nations a new financial framework has been agreed but the numbers behind it have cause more problems.

Budgets are being slashed as the game in Wales attempts to get its spending under control. It means players out of contract are being offered new salaries that are a fraction of what they previously earned.

And against that backdrop, Gatland named a 54-man training squad to prepare for the World Cup last month.

That number has already been reduced to 49.

Alun Wyn Jones' retirement meant he is one of the latest players to drop out of the World Cup squad Credit: PA

One withdrawal was Rhys Carre, who was shown the door for missing what have been described as performance-related targets. But the others are down to off-field matters as much as anything.

But Rhys Webb and Cory Hill have withdrawn themselves and been up front about their reasoning, making themselves unavailable to pursue lucrative contracts abroad.

Ross Moriarty and Joe Hawkins made similar decisions, though there was some consternation over the latter's ineligibility.

The seismic withdrawals of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric, however, are shrouded in mystery.

Jones' refusal to engage in media duties during his recent stint with the Barbarians leaves way for only speculation over his decision and what the future holds.

Both players have enjoyed storied Test careers and perhaps the willingness to endure another altitude camp in Switzerland followed by a heat camp in Turkey waned.

That's all a long way of saying that Gatland is probably now afraid to look at his phone when it rings for fear of another bombshell.

  • So what does all this mean for the World Cup later this year?

Things have been tough in Welsh rugby since the pandemic hit but group opponents - particularly Australia and Fiji - will not be dishing out any sympathy.

Before the aforementioned chaos, Wales, with an ageing squad and a tepid - at best - Six Nations under their belt looked up against it.

Rugby Down Under is going through a mini resurgence with the Brumbies poised for a Super Rugby Pacific semi-final this weekend. If they beat the Chiefs and make it to the final, they'll be the first Aussie side to do it in almost a decade.

Fijian rugby, meanwhile, is also on the up. Fijian Drua - the nation's relatively-newly formed professional domestic side - reached the quarter-final of Super Rugby this season.

Fiji have always been a dangerous proposition but now that they have a professional entity on home soil, they may be more ready than ever to cause major issues on the big stage.

All things considered, this is shaping up to be the biggest challenge of Gatland's time in charge of Wales.

At his first World Cup in 2011, he leaned into the nation's youth in an attempt to revitalise the setup. It paid off.

Rio Dyer (centre) shaking the hand of Warren Gatland after Wales' latest Six Nations match in Rome Credit: PA

It's looking like he is being forced into attempting to repeat the trick. Suddenly players like Daf Jenkins, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Mason Grady and Rio Dyer edge closer to centre stage.

And though we have become relatively accustomed to high levels of expectations as far as the Wales men's national side are concerned, it might be good for everyone's sanity if those are adjusted slightly this time around.

In light of everything, simply emerging from the group in France would need to be viewed as a success, anything beyond that a bonus.

Over the last 12 years or so, Wales have found ways to galvanise themselves when the odds have been stacked against them and emerge with credibility.

But fewer of the instruments that Gatland has been familiar with in that time are now available to him.

The glaring question is can he still play the same tune?