Gatland back as Wales coach in win-win situation

December 5, 2022 GMT
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FILE - British and Irish Lions' head coach Warren Gatland smiles during a warm-up rugby match between South Africa Lions and British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 3, 2021. Gatland has returned as coach of Wales’ rugby team after fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac was fired following a run of just three wins in 12 games this year, it was announced Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. The dramatic development comes nine months out from the Rugby World Cup in France. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, file)
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FILE - British and Irish Lions' head coach Warren Gatland smiles during a warm-up rugby match between South Africa Lions and British and Irish Lions at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 3, 2021. Gatland has returned as coach of Wales’ rugby team after fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac was fired following a run of just three wins in 12 games this year, it was announced Monday, Dec. 5, 2022. The dramatic development comes nine months out from the Rugby World Cup in France. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe, file)

Warren Gatland is back as coach of Wales and he can’t lose.

If next year the team earns a top-half finish or better in the Six Nations and respectability at the Rugby World Cup in France, those tagging him as the messiah will be justified.

And if Wales flops in both tournaments, then Gatland has ready-made excuses. Not enough time. Welsh rugby was in too big of a hole.

Gatland returned to save Wales on Monday after his successor Wayne Pivac agreed to resign before he was sacked by the Welsh Rugby Union. New Zealand released Gatland so he could immediately give up his job as the Chiefs director of rugby.

He is the most successful Wales coach in the professional era and its longest tenured. On his watch from 2008-19, Wales won four Six Nations and reached two semifinals out of three World Cups. Gatland had a success rate of 55%, not including coaching three tours by the British and Irish Lions.

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“The buzz of rugby and being involved in the Six Nations and World Cup was the tempting factor,” Gatland said. “I loved my time here and I wouldn’t have stayed as long if I hadn’t been so well received.

“I’m confident that I can come in and make a difference, make a side that are proud to put that jersey on and are prepared to die for it. I don’t expect anything less from the players. If we can achieve that in a short period of time, that’ll give us the best opportunity to be successful.

“The advantage I’ve got is I know the setup and so many people involved so I can hit the ground running.”

Pivac was determined to see out the World Cup cycle and finish in France next year. But after Wales blew a 34-13 lead against Australia with a quarter to go and lost 39-34 two weekends ago, he couldn’t overcome the clamor for him to go.

The defeat was the ninth in 12 tests this year and 20th in 34 tests under Pivac. He took ultimate responsibility and agreed with the union that the team’s worst season since 2010 was not the right trajectory before a World Cup year.

That 2010 was Gatland’s third year, too. At that point he had a similar record to Pivac — 17 losses in 32 tests — but the period didn’t include damning home losses to Italy or a tier two side like Georgia as Wales suffered this year.

Gatland’s first issue is his assistants. Getting the old band together will be difficult.

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Shaun Edwards last month signed a four-year contract extension with France, Robin McBryde was tethered to Leinster, and Rob Howley was the Canada assistant coach.

Of Pivac’s assistants, Neil Jenkins was a holdover from Gatland’s time. The others were Jonathan Humphreys, Gethin Jenkins and Stephen Jones, all former Wales captains.

The squad will look familiar to Gatland. There’s still 11 playing of the starting 15 from the 2019 World Cup semifinal loss to eventual champion South Africa. But many players have moved into their 30s and endured long injury layoffs.

To offset that, Pivac was trying to find answers for the present and future. He debuted 31 players and unearthed talent such as forwards Dewi Lake, Will Rowlands, Tommy Reffell, Taine Basham and Jac Morgan, and backs Louis Rees-Zammit, Nick Tompkins, Rio Dyer and Joe Hawkins.

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After more than a decade of ‘Warrenball,’ Pivac tried to get Wales to play wider and up tempo, but struggled with numerous injuries to consistently send out his best team. The high points were winning the 2021 Six Nations and, in July, earning a first win over the Springboks in South Africa.

Meanwhile, the four Welsh regions have continued to under-perform. Cardiff squeaks into the top half of the five-nation United Rugby Championship but the other three regions are in the bottom four. The WRU last month froze all new contracts and recruitment among the regions to negotiate future financing. On Monday, a verbal agreement was reported on a six-year deal.

Gatland has only eight tests in 10 months before the World Cup to effect a positive turnaround, starting on Feb. 4 with No. 1-ranked Ireland coming to Cardiff to open the Six Nations. The Welsh are also home to England but have to travel to Scotland, Italy and France.

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Then they have three warmups in August with England and South Africa before they open the World Cup against Fiji in a pool with Australia, Georgia and Portugal.

Gatland has a break clause to finish after the World Cup. But if Wales does well, he has an option to coach on to the 2027 World Cup.

“There’s no certainty but I’m comfortable with that,” he said.

He can take heart from other major teams changing coaches before a World Cup: Ian McIntosh was sacked nine months out and Kitch Christie led South Africa to the 1995 title; Andy Robinson was sacked 10 months beforehand and assistant Brian Ashton guided England to the 2007 final; and Ewen McKenzie resigned 11 months out and Michael Cheika led the Wallabies to the 2015 final.

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