When looking back on Warren Gatland’s time as Head Coach of the Wales National Rugby Team there appears to be two schools of thought; those with an interest in regional rugby, and those without one.
A lot of the media over the last week or so as we approached the New Zealander’s final game in post against his home country in the Rugby World Cup third-place play-off was overwhelmingly positive.
That was reflected in much of social media, as supporters flocked in their droves to thank him for his time in Wales. Phrases such as ‘the best we’ve ever had’ and ‘we don’t know how good we had it until he’s gone’ were thrown around. They were very much from the no interest in regional rugby brigade.
Now as someone quite clearly in the regional rugby supporting brigade I can understand where those sentiments come from. Gatland has done some quite superb work as head coach of Wales.
When he arrived in 2007 we were in a mess after the failed World Cup, the messy departure of Gareth Jenkins and with a team that needed revamping as some senior members of the 2005 Grand Slam winning side bid farewell to international rugby.
Gatland, along with Shaun Edwards in particular, as well as Robin McBryde and Rob Howley, implemented a style of play and a culture around that which suited us down to the ground. The birth of ‘Warrenball’.
It was high tempo, in-your-face aggressive rugby with ball in hand, underpinned by a relentless defence that didn’t give opposition teams time to breathe. That style hung around in various forms for pretty much the next 12 years, and was clearly successful.
Three Grand Slams and a further Six Nations Championships were secured, a second golden era for Welsh rugby following on from the 1970s. A world away from the miserable 90s. In World Cups there were semi-finals in 2011 and 2019, as well as a brave effort to make the quarter-final in 2015.
Gatland helped us punch above our weight in terms of population, playing numbers and financial resources throughout that time, and in solely Team Wales terms deserves credit.
Yes there are criticisms. His record against the ‘big three’ Southern Hemisphere sides is atrocious and prevents him from being seen as a truly legendary figure, while his refusal to add at least a touch of creativity to the team’s attacking style between 2015 and 2017 probably lost two years of progress.
All-in-all it is difficult to begrudge him receiving all these plaudits though, that is unless you take an interest in regional rugby though, then it’s quite easy.
Throughout his tenure Gatland has had power at the Welsh Rugby Union that is unrivalled amongst his contemporaries at international level. It may well be denied, but it is quite clear that what Warren wants, Warren pretty much gets.
The main result of that has been an unprecedented level of access to international players within the regions that has shorn us of star names for important league games when opponents from Scotland, Ireland and Italy are still in a position to field their big players.
Ahead of every Autumn International Series and Six Nations the players selected have been unavailable for selection in the week before Wales games get underway. This resulted in the farce a few years ago where a round of Pro12, as it was then, action saw Welsh derbies take place without selected Wales players involved.
The releasing of players not involved in matchday 23s during those international windows has been haphazard at best, especially during fallow weeks in the Six Nations, and the subsequent ability of the regions to be competitive all year round has taken a hit.
The other aspect of his power has come in the form of central contracts and player selection policies.
It is believed Gatland had a significant role to play in Sam Warburton signing what was initially a central contract with the WRU in 2014, before the introduction of National Dual Contracts which were handed out at the direction of the national team’s Head Coach.
Some of the players who received NDCs, and the imbalance in the way they were awarded, still lives a sour taste in the mouth to this day among regional rugby fans, and contributed to a lot of financial problems in the intervening five years.
The subsequent player selection policies were a step in the right direction on paper, but the loopholes that allowed Gatland to select the vast majority of players based overseas rendered the policy almost worthless, and only strengthened the coach’s grip on power in the halls of the WRU.
So yes, in conclusion, Warren Gatland has done an excellent job as head coach of Wales but no, Warren Gatland hasn’t done an excellent job for rugby in Wales.
All eyes are now on former regional head coach Wayne Pivac as the future of regional rugby reaches a critical point.