It seems a ridiculous notion, that a coach who has won three Grand Slams could potentially be underrated, but Wales’ spectacular run has led many to question whether Gatland is indeed properly appreciated. Nagging doubts remain about the style of rugby, and the place of Gatland in the discussion regarding the game’s greats.
Departing the Wales job 12 years after the World Cup, Gatland has confirmed he will lead the 2021 Lions tour to South Africa. According to Johnny Sexton, this is no surprise, “he is unbeaten. His record speaks for itself.” It is true, Gatland is the most successful Lions coach in the modern era, and now has the opportunity to go undefeated in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, which would be an unparalleled achievement.
Since 2001, Rugby World Cup aside, a team coached by Gatland has won everything he has competed in at least once. Four Six Nations and three Grand Slams with Wales, alongside three consecutive Premiership titles, a Challenge Cup and a Heineken Cup with Wasps, are truly incredible achievements.
In the 2011 World Cup, their first under Gatland, Wales progressed to the quarter finals, only to go out to France following a harsh red card decision against Warburton, who eventually came close to defeating New Zealand in the final. Given their abysmal showing in 2007, after which Gatland took charge, this was an impressive effort, and a clear indicator of the progress under Gatland. In 2015 they were severely hamstrung with injury but still performed well, knocking out England. Wales’ current run, of 14 consecutive wins, has been timed perfectly, and, ranked 2nd in the world, they are looking dangerous heading into this year’s World Cup.
Yet, despite this undoubted success, Gatland’s reputation as a coach remains debated. Much of this is fuelled by the comments of Sean O’Brien following the 2017 Lions tour, in which he essentially blamed the coaches for the Lions draw with the All Blacks. Expressing his frustration, O’Brien stated, “The coaches have a lot to answer for in terms of our attack rather than Johnny [Sexton] and Faz [Owen Farrell] trying to drive it. I think we should have won 3 – 0 with the players we had.”
Gatland also faced criticism for the players he called up to the 2017 tour, which he based, in part, on the geographical proximity of the Welsh and Scottish teams, in Tonga and Australia respectively, to New Zealand. In response to this, Alan Quinlan suggested Gatland had, “dented the ethos surrounding the Lions.”
The crux of the issue has for many been Gatland’s playing philosophy. The playing style of Gatland teams tends to be attritional, reliant on the physicality, discipline, hard work and fitness of his players. As a result, so called ‘Warrenball’ has drawn many detractors over the years, particularly in his native New Zealand. However, this interpretation tells far from the whole story, and Gatland’s Wales have at times played wonderful rugby. Furthermore, his loyalty to Shane Williams, amongst other less physical players, such as Justin Tipuric, dispels the myth that Gatland only picks big players.
Fundamentally, Gatland is a master at utilising and arranging the resources at his disposal. Coaching Wales, a country with one of rugby’s smallest playing pools, he has shown the ability to innovate, shifting his game play to accommodate the varying attributes of players such as Williams, Faletau, Anscombe and Tipuric. Throughout his tenure Wales have been amongst the worlds hardest working sides, mentally tough and difficult to break down, an indicator of the motivational ability of the man Quinlan labelled a master of mind games.
Gatland often cuts a wry, discerning figure in the press, but his repeated ability to inspire heroic performances from his players is evidence of a deep connection and trust. He has had a transformative effect on Welsh rugby and remains underappreciated beyond its orders.
Written by Joe Ronan