Wales v England: Crisis has given Welsh rugby opportunity for special things to happen says Gatland

Wales boss Warren Gatland has put the rugby world on notice and urged critics to keep writing his side off, as Matt Southcombe reports.

When Warren Gatland returned to Welsh rugby, he found it in an almighty mess.

An agreement between the Welsh Rugby Union and the four regions, which would secure the financial futures of the players, would be done in a fortnight, he was told.

It went on to take five months and came to a head during the Six Nations when players threatened to refuse to take the field against England.

That strike threat dominated the build-up to the match with players dragged into meeting after meeting.

The game eventually went ahead following crunch talks between players and WRU bosses at the Vale Resort.

Before the Six Nations even began, allegations of misogyny were levelled against the Union. Though none of them related to then Chief Executive Steve Phillips, he chose to resign.

Wales finished fifth in the Six Nations, a disappointing but perhaps inevitable outcome, given all that had gone on.

Ken Owens, who was captain during that campaign, branded Welsh rugby a laughing stock.

And as Wales prepare for next month's World Cup, Gatland reflected on what had been the most turbulent of times.

Warren Gatland's team were in the Swiss Alps on a training camp ahead of the Rugby World Cup in France. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

“I think that it's only when you reflect back that you kind of realise that it was challenging at the time,” Gatland told ITV Wales.

“I didn't realise how tough it was on the other coaches and the other staff as well.

“Obviously there was a lot of tension between the players and the potential strike and the impact that they had.

“I look back on myself and I thought I just had to sit back a little bit, let things unfold and then maybe reset things post Six Nations.”

He added: “I think that the positive is sometimes with crises it is an opportunity for change and an opportunity to to reset things and put things in place to make things better.

“The things that I've been involved with in the last month or so have been incredibly positive in terms of the conversations that have been had.

“We just had a strategy meeting with the regions and the Union, which I thought was really positive in terms of the outcome.

“[It’s about] Working a lot more closely together going forward in terms of sharing information and kind of trying to help each other in terms of making each other better.

“We want the regions to be successful, we want the national team to be successful and with such a small nation we've got to do that collectively.”

Over the last year or so, the Union faced a barrage of criticism on a number of fronts.

But one positive Gatland may be alluding to is the revolutionising of how the Union is run.

In June, Richard Collier-Keywood was announced as the organisation’s first independent chair and a new Board is being formed.

There is also an external investigation taking place into the Union’s culture following the allegations that emerged in January.

While Gatland admits it was frustrating that the new financial deal took significantly longer than expected, he did defend the WRU.

“I've got to get my hat off sometimes to the Union because they take a bashing and they keep their council,” he said.

“They don’t come out and defend a lot of things and they tend to be criticised a lot when they can probably be a little bit more vocal.

“I know there were people within the Union who were pretty frustrated that they weren't sort of fighting back and that saying things and defending themselves.

“But that's just the way it is. And I respect the Union for that.”

Alun Wyn Jones, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric have all walked away from Wales' 2023 World Cup squad. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

On the pitch, Gatland has had to deal with the sudden international retirements of some of his most experienced players.

Former captain Alun Wyn Jones, the most-capped player in the history of the sport, has walked away, joined by the likes of Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric.

All players had been initially named in the World Cup training squad but opted to withdraw.

From the outside, it appeared unsettling but that is something Gatland refutes.

“At some stage, the time was to move on,” he says.

“I find it interesting because, you know, some of those players have been criticised in the past about when was it time to go, was it time to make a move.

“And then they make the decision and then all of a sudden, that's a crisis for me and the Wales team.

“So I find that quite strange sometimes, how people then twist the narrative.”

This autumn will put Welsh rugby back on a global stage for the first time since that turbulent Six Nations campaign.

A successful tournament in France would not cure all ills but it would give the game here a much-needed boost.

Gatland will be hoping the hard work at World Cup training camps pay off this weekend as Wales host England. Credit: ITV Cymru Wales

Though it’s not something Gatland has broached with his players.

“We haven't spoken about restoring pride or anything like that. With this group of players, it’s not even so much talking about winning to start with, it's about becoming a really tough team to beat.

“And if you become a really tough team to beat, then you know, you've got a group of players that are working hard for each other.

“And then the performances and results kind of take care of themselves.

“I know how proud these guys are to be Welsh, and how proud they are to put that jersey on.

“Yeah, probably recent times have been a little bit tough but all I can say is that we’ll put the hard work in here and work on building that confidence to give some good performances over the next few months.”

He continued: “There's no magic formula. You just put the work in and you put the effort in, and from that hard work and consistency of training - that builds confidence.

“And when you can build the confidence within a group of players and they start believing, then we know special things can happen.

“I’ve experienced that in the past with a group of Welsh players.”

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