Under Warren Gatland Wales have enjoyed unprecedented success not seen since the heady days of the 1970’s: 2 Grand Slams, a Championship and a World Cup Semi-Final (which they agonisingly lost 10-9 to France). To boot the New Zealander led the British and Irish Lions to a 2013 series win over Australia helped by a large Welsh contingent (8 players in the deciding third test) with Leigh Halfpenny being named man of the series. And come two weeks time, he may have added a fourth Six Nations title to his CV
When the Ex-Waikato, Ireland and Wasps coach took over in November 2007, Wales were in a mess: two consecutive Fifth placed Six Nations finishes (including Mike Ruddock’s shock resignation in 2006) and a disastrous World Cup campaign which saw Wales crash out at the group stages and which led to the sacking of coach Gareth Jenkins.
From ‘Chumps to Champs’–
But five games later Gatland had turned Wales into Grand Slam winners, sparked by a first win at Twickenham in 10 years. Alongside his trusted Wasps lieutenant: Defence coach Shaun Edwards he has instilled a tougher mental edge, greater fitness levels, an aggressive defence, and a different style of play.
He has also brought through the likes of: Sam Warburton, Jamie Roberts (who he turned from a Full Back into a Centre), Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Lydiate, Toby Faletau, George North and many others.
Southern Hemisphere woes-
There is no doubt that he has done great things with Wales but there is thing which casts a shadow of his legacy: his record against the Southern Hemisphere. In 30 games against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa Gatland has lost 35 times and won only twice: a 21-18 triumph against Australia in 2008 and a 12-6 win over South Africa in 2014.
Like nearly all before him (Wales haven’t beaten the All Blacks since 1953) he has failed to beat New Zealand while he has managed only one win in 7 against the Springboks but his record against the Aussies is even worse: only one win in 12 games, including eleven successive defeats.
There have been plenty of near misses: agonising late World Cup defeats in 2011 and 2015 to South Africa plus a last-minute 21-20 defeat to the Boks in 2014, and a last-minute 2013 loss to Australia and a host of narrow defeats against the Wallabies with the margin of defeat in the teams last Six encounters only 20 points.
So what are the reasons behind this terrible record?
The first reason is Wales’ style of play: ‘Warrenball’ as it has been dubbed, is a confrontational style with a hugh emphasis on physicality and directness. Winning the gainline battle through the direct and muscular running of the likes of Jamie Roberts is fundamental to the plan, allowing go forward ball and the chance to bring other big ball carriers such as Toby Faletau, Alun Wyn Jones, and Rob Evans in to midfield to punch more holes in the opposition defence before in theory going wide, where gaps will have appeared.
Attacking opposing packs aggressively around the corner of rucks through their big ball carriers ,thus putting the opposition on the back foot allied to a terrier like rush defence are also key tenants to the Gatland gameplan. It is an attritional, physical style but is highly effective. But in fairness to Gatland Wales have showed more willingness in their first two Six Nations games of this campaign to put the ball through the hands a bit more as well.
While this style is extremely effective in the Northern hemisphere, it isn’t as effective against the ‘big 3’ whose defences are generally more organised and more aggressive than their Northern hemisphere (with the exception of Wales) rivals. So scoring tries against them is a struggle for Wales. To boot, New Zealand and Australia’s attacking potency means that they can unlock any defence thus even such a top quality defence such as Wales’ can be unlocked (Australia’s tryless 2015 World Cup defeat of Wales being the exception).
The second reason for Wales’ Southern hemisphere woes is the difference in intensity between the two hemisphere’s. Despite the fact that Rugby in the North is intense, players are not put under the same constant pressure as in the South. In the South players constantly have to execute their skills- from the first minute to the 80th minute, an environment which means that even when the heat is on, they can execute those offloads, take the right option and keep their composure.
In the Northern Hempisphere there isn’t that 80 minutes of constant pressure to execute your skills at a high level. This I believe is one of the reasons that Wales are able to close out tight games against their Northern rivals but are unable to do the same against the big three.
Due to this big step up in intensity and quality between the Six Nations and games against the Southern Hemisphere, Wales against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. At key moments Wales make key mistakes which ultimately cost them e.g. Liam Williams’ shoulder barge on Cornal Hendricks against South Africa in June 2014 which resulted in a last minute penalty try which saw them lose 21-20 to South Africa after leading 20-13 with eight minutes to go or Alex Cuthbert’s missed tackle against South Africa in last year’s World Cup Quarter final.
These crucial mistakes and a lack of composure at key times is a result of the fact that they are not used to having to constantly play to the maximum of their ability, execute skills and make important decisions when playing in the Six Nations.
And the third and final reason is the mental side. Gatland and co won’t admit this of course but they obviously have a mental block against the Southern Hemisphere as reflected in their horrendous record against them. They have constantly let leads slip against them and failed to close out games.
They have to show a harder mental edge at key moments, be more clinical when the chances come, and show more self-belief when it really counts. At their very best they can beat Australia and really push New Zealand hard.
World legacy in doubt-
Warren Gatland’s place in the pantheon of Welsh coaching greats is assured and we Welsh fans will always be eternally grateful to him for his excellent work, but doubts remain about his World legacy.