Matt Williams: Warren Gatland factor makes Wales a real threat to Ireland

The players believe in head coach’s game plan and that makes them very dangerous in Six Nations

Perhaps it was the obvious joy in the poetic descriptions of the action by the legendary Scottish commentator Bill McLaren that first slid the then Five Nations championship into my imagination.

Or perhaps it was the dramatic simplicity of the colours of the national jerseys. Scarlet, green, white and two very different shades of blue. Thirty blocks of solid colour contrasted against the leaden February skies and the lushly grassed fields of the hallowed European rugby cathedrals.

Each with a unique character of their own.

Lansdowne Road, with the steel hulk of the gas works looming like a rising Transformer in the background, as the rumble of the train under the old West Stand was captured by the broadcaster’s microphone.


Cockerels roaming the Parc des Princes to the beat of Basque drums and the blare of trumpets.

At the legendary Cardiff Arms Park, the harmonies from the Valleys created a single choral voice that delivered Bread of Heaven floating out across the dog track.

As hymns inspired by the genius of Gareth Edwards rang out, my brothers and I huddled around an old glowing valve, black and white TV in suburban Sydney. Soaking in the 40 minutes of the Five Nations highlights and cherishing every second.

At a time when Bledisloe Cup matches could be four years apart, the annual rhythm of the championship was as reviving to our rugby community as water being poured into the mouth of a traveller on a long desert crossing.

Isolated by the tyranny of staggering distances and swamped by the giants of AFL and Rugby League, the romance of the Five Nations gave us hope and inspiration. With our own eyes, we witnessed that rugby’s Jerusalem existed.

Like all kids, we copied our heroes. Every sociopathic openside flanker grew their hair long and scraped in a bit of blonding peroxide as an homage to the flowing golden locks of Casque D’or. The French captain Jean-Pierre Rives, known as the Golden Helmet.

While every secondrower had their heads taped up so tight they looked like a squeezed potato, hoping the strapping would press in some of Willie John McBride’s brilliance.

Saturday’s match in Cardiff is the next stanza in that glorious heritage as the charisma of rugby’s greatest annual competition continues to draw people from across the globe and inspire the next generation.

Sadly, it comes at the end of one of Welsh rugby’s most shameful weeks, which forced the resignation of their CEO. Combined with the continued floundering of the provincial teams and the recent dismissal of their head coach, Welsh rugby is in a state of chaos.

Enter the great redeemer.

Like a hermit prophet from the Old Testament, Warren Gatland has been summoned from the rugby wilderness to lead his adopted people out of the desert of defeat and back into the Promised Land that all Welsh people passionately believe is their birthright. Winning matches in the Six Nations.

From the Brecon Beacons to Mumbles beach, all of Wales is praying their team can deliver an emotionally-driven, winning performance.

Especially when it will be at the expense of Ireland. In his heart, Gatland has never forgiven Irish rugby after he was removed as Irish coach two decades ago.

In reality, the return of Gatland into the bosom of Welsh rugby should get Irish hearts beating with concern. The Welsh situation is best summarised by the American country singer Toby Keith who sang: “I am not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once, as I ever was.”

With a team full of ageing warriors, the long-term outlook for Wales is dire. However, Saturday can see the Welsh delivering a dead cat bounce, a one-off performance.

Rugby is an emotional game and emotions are running at flood-level highs in Wales.

Gatland’s relationship with the Welsh team delivers the mystic side of coaching. That serendipitous synergy that can only be produced when a powerful bond between players and their coach is generated. The Welsh players totally believe that Gatland can bring out the best in each individual and the team.

From a secret site, deep in west Carmathon, marked by a giant W, Gatland has dug up his old game plan. Detested across the globe for its ability to cure insomnia, it is lovingly known as Wazza Ball.

In 2023 it will look like a rugby Frankenstein. Brought back from the dead by its creator. Hurriedly stitched together with ill-fitting limbs and minus a fully functioning brain. While we can make fun of that outmoded way of playing, the essence is that the Welsh believe that Gatty’s plan can win matches. That means they can win.

The rugby world understands that Ireland should win this game by a considerable margin. They are playing a steely style of rugby that has put New Zealand, South Africa and Australia to the sword in a single calendar year.

Yet, rugby in Wales is at an inflection point. The word collapse has been bandied about. So the Welsh have no alternative but to fight for their very existence. They truly have nothing to lose. That makes them a very dangerous opponent. The churning cauldron of Welsh emotion surrounding this Test match poses a real threat to Ireland.

Though mired deep in adversity, Welsh voices will combine to cry out Land of our Fathers. At a cold Principality Stadium, it will be more like a plea for help than a national anthem. For Wales to prevail there is a lot resting on faith and hope, while Ireland’s confidence is built on the foundation of talent and performances. A heady mix of opposing mindsets.

As Bill McLaren would say: “Hold on to your seats. There is a titanic Test match in the offing.”