Over the past roughly five or six years I have been an outspoken critic of Warren Gatland in his role as Wales head coach a number of times, not unfairly in my opinion.
After winning the Grand Slam in 2012 he spent the year away with the British and Irish Lions in 2013, and upon returning to the Wales setup following a series win in Australia, oversaw three years of plateauing results and performance.
It wasn’t a dreadful period of results, with Wales never finishing below third in the Six Nations table, and although the 2015 Rugby World Cup was a disappointment, the extreme number of injuries suffered by the squad did not make staying competitive particularly easy.
However, winning only two of eight games outside the World Cup against the big three Southern Hemisphere in that period, both against a struggling South Africa, summed up a period of the team not pushing the best sides in the World.
The issue was the gradual process of both the squad selections and playing style going stale, as Gatland persisted with players who had taken him to the 2012 Grand Slam, and the ‘Warrenball’ tactics that had been found out by opposition sides.
As other teams and individual players matched the physicality that the Wales of 2012 played with that direct and abrasive style quickly became ineffective, with teams like New Zealand, England and Ireland, who could manipulate a defence with ball-in-hand, overtaking us in the world game.
In the last few days there have been suggestions that people should be rapidly deleting previous posts questioning Gatland, but I 100% stand by my criticism of Gatland from back then. It was justified as he took too long to adapt to the way rugby was going.
What I will do though, is give him credit for finally making the changes necessary to make Wales a force again in the Six Nations and the wider international game, to the extent where we now go into the World Cup as a serious contender.
It started in the Autumn Internationals of 2017, when Gatland opted to select Owen Williams, then of Leicester and now of Gloucester’s bench, as a playmaking inside centre, moving away from the crash ball of Jamie Roberts.
Whether it was the experience of playing with Jonny Sexton and Owen Farrell as dual playmakers on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour, or just a realisation that Wales needed to expand their style of play, it set the wheels rolling on developing a brand of rugby that mixes the physicality of the early Gatland days with the attacking potency required in rugby currently.
Bringing in Gareth Anscombe and Hadleigh Parkes has played a big role in that, as has the development of Rob Evans, Nicky Smith, Tomas Francis and Dillon Lewis as multi-faceted front row forwards, with the squad striking a balance between strength and skill.
More than that though, he has created an environment where the players are comfortable, they buy into the game plan completely, and seem to enjoy playing and spending time with each other.
The players clearly enjoy the chance to play for Wales and properly express themselves, while Gatland’s policy of ensuring everything is in order at home in order to allow the player to properly concentrate while on international duty is clearly paying dividends.
With the majority of the Grand Slam winning squad meeting up on Sunday afternoon after the celebrations the night before, they are a group who enjoy each other’s company and Gatland can take credit for allowing an almost club-like culture to develop among his international squad.
If that continues into the World Cup then Wales stand a great chance of pushing on to the semi-finals where, as we know from 2011, anything can happen. I’m actually starting to get excited by Team Wales!