Warren Gatland plans patient approach but also surprises from Wales at World Cup
Wales know they are in safe hands when Warren Gatland leads them to his fourth Rugby World Cup as head coach.
But it could prove to be the New Zealander’s biggest challenge of all after a difficult 12 months on and off the pitch.
Since Wales claimed a first victory over the Springboks in South Africa last year, they have won just three out of 13 Tests.
Wayne Pivac left his role as head coach following an autumn campaign when Wales lost at home to Georgia, before Gatland returned for a second stint in the top job.
There was also a significant backdrop of major financial issues and contractual uncertainty throughout the Welsh professional game, so much so that a threatened players’ strike dominated the build-up to Wales’ Guinness Six Nations clash with England in February.
A miserable fifth-placed finish in the tournament followed, but since naming an expanded training squad more than three months ago, Gatland has had time and space to gradually piece things back together through punishing camps in Switzerland and Turkey, plus through three World Cup warm-up games.
Underpinned by a World Cup record with Wales of two semi-final appearances and one quarter-final, Gatland knows the ropes and he is unquestionably relishing the task that lies ahead.
“I think if I look back on the Six Nations and all the things that were going on, I probably needed to let things unfold a bit and not be as direct or demanding as I might have normally been,” he said.
“The fact that things have settled down and a lot of new players have come in, the way that we’ve been so much more accountable for how we do things and demanding standards, that has been brilliant.
“As a group, we are in a good place. I promise you now, we will surprise some people.
“It is one step at a time. It’s about getting out of your pool first, and then see where you are. You don’t look too far ahead.
“I think every team is focusing on that – get out of your pool and take it one step at a time.”
Fiji are first up for Wales in Bordeaux, followed by Portugal, Australia and Georgia. Portugal are the only team not in Wales’ World Cup group of four years ago.
Gatland added: “We are pretty clear how we want to play against Fiji. We know how dangerous they are.
“They will have had five warm-up games before the World Cup, so they are going to be rugby-fit. We are all well aware of how important that first game is.
“If you can win that game you get some momentum, and then you can get some confidence, and hopefully you have a chance to win the group.”
Sixteen members of Gatland’s 33-strong World Cup squad, including co-captains Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake, have never previously never set foot on rugby union’s biggest global stage.
But there are also four cap centurions in George North, who heads to a fourth World Cup, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Taulupe Faletau, plus another six with more than 50 caps.
“It was trying to get the balance right with the experience,” Gatland said. “Some of the discussion was around what experienced players we felt we needed to take with some of the youngsters who have come into the squad.
“The beauty of this World Cup is that we do get some more breathing space with the time between games.
“The first game and the second games are a short turnaround, and then we’ve got an eight-day turnaround to Australia and then 13 days to the Georgia game.
“In the past it has been a challenge when you have had a four-day turnaround. It is a little bit more of a luxury in terms of that, so hopefully it gives us an opportunity to keep players fit and to freshen some players up between games.”
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