Gung-ho Gatland predicts Wales title triumph if they defeat France in opener
Veteran Kiwi coach knows when Wales have momentum their confidence soars
Warren Gatland has won three Six Nations titles with Wales (albeit none since 2013), including two Grand Slams. Photograph: PA Wire
Last Monday week at the Rugby Union Writers’ Club’s annual awards banquet in London, Warren Gatland was asked how Wales would do in this year’s Guinness Six Nations, and said that if they could win the tournament’s Friday night opener against France in Stade de France they would win the tournament.
Typical Gatland of course.
Johnny Sexton was also in attendance to receive the Pat Marshall award as the Rugby Union Writers’ Club personality of the year, and won plenty of admirers for turning up in person and the way he engaged with everyone.
In his speech, Sexton quipped if Wales win their opening match he better inform his teammates there was no point in them taking to the Aviva Stadium pitch to play England the next day. The title would already be decided.
The form of the Welsh regions has little impact on their national team, and when they have momentum, their confidence soars. Facing into his 12th Six Nations with the Welsh, Gatland knows this better than anyone.
In his previous 11 years at the helm Wales have won three titles (albeit none since 2013), including two Grand Slams.
Somewhat surprisingly, the title has actually been decided before the last weekend in each of the last three years, but the Six Nations is due a finish akin to the Super Saturday of 2015, when Ireland edged out England and Wales on points’ difference. This year’s final round will see Wales host Ireland in Cardiff, and these were the top two last season, with Scotland completing a Celtic top three.
“My expectation is always high,” said Gatland. “We finished second last year and had a really good year. If we can win that first game in Paris it will give us a really good chance of winning the Six Nations.”
“But what is brilliant about the tournament is that a lot of teams will think like that. It is as competitive as I can remember and that’s brilliant for the tournament.”
“The conversations used to be about just England and France. People used to ask why those two didn’t play on the last weekend of the Six Nations because they were the only two teams who were going to win it.”
“Now you are talking about five teams (who could win) and Italy are still a work-in progress. All the teams think on the first weekend they can beat each other.”
This will be the third time the Six Nations kicks off on a Friday night. Both previous occasions also involved Wales, at home to England in 2011 and 2015. They lost the first 26-19, when England went on to win the title and Wales finished fourth (Wales would have won the title themselves had they beaten England on opening night).
They also lost the second 21-16, and would finish third with England second, both behind Ireland on points difference. (Had Wales won that opener, they’d have completed a Grand Slam. )
So not only does this highlight the importance of momentum, but also how an opening defeat can prove such a handicap. In that respect, Gatland’s proclamation isn’t just bravado. There’s substance behind it, as even Ireland coach Joe Schmidt admits. “Yeah and the draw that Wales have got is a friendly draw for them. I think that Gats said it publicly recently that it is well set up for them and if they can win that first he said, ‘I think will win the Championship’.”
“It was a bit like us last year, we went away France first up, won that one and, while we didn’t probably say it as publicly or as openly as Gats did, we knew we were in with a chance to win the Championship because we felt we’ve defended our home turf really well. We’ve yet to lose a Six Nations game over the last five years there so we’ll be doing our utmost to try and maintain that when England come to town. And Wales are the same, they’re very hard to beat in the Millennium.”
After playing France, Wales have an eight-day turnaround before facing Italy in Rome, so an opening night win in Paris could set them up very nicely. They then have a two-week build-up to playing England in Cardiff, and after facing Scotland away, Wales have a seven-day turnaround before hosting Ireland on the last Saturday, whereas Ireland play France at home the previous Sunday.
“We get them (Wales) after a six-day turnaround after France, who always have a toll. It’s always an attritional game against France,” said Schmidt, no doubt also mindful of the ravages which the pool decider against France caused a week before the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina in 2015.
“Getting England at home they’ll back themselves because they were very close to beating England last year. There wasn’t much in that game at all, it was a one-score game,” added Schmidt.
Were Wales still in the title picture come the final Saturday against Ireland then, as ever, the one thing they won’t lack is confidence. Furthermore, Ireland have won one of their last four Six Nations meetings with Wales, and lost on both of their last two visits to the Principality Stadium in the Championship.
“I think we’ve had a pretty even contest with Ireland,” said Gatland. “It’s been touch and go with close games and the win ratio is pretty even.”
Noting how last season’s meeting ultimately came down to Jacob Stockdale’s intercept try, Gatland added: “We finished second in the Six Nations last year, potentially the last game against Ireland could be a decider. That’s what we’re looking at as what may happen,” said Gatland, and the two countries will also have two World Cup warm-up matches against each other.
As for Ireland’s development under Schmidt, Gatland said: “They deserve to be number two in the world, you could argue Ireland are the best team in the world at the moment. They are one of the favourites to win the World Cup and rightly so in terms of they’re a tough team to play against.”
“We’ve had a pretty successful strategy in the past ad we’re going to try to have a game-plan to implement and we’ll be looking to do that at the end of the tournament.”
“The reason they’re tough to play against is their retention of the ball, particularly if they get into your 22. Their conversion rate for scoring is excellent whether it’s three points through Johnny Sexton or getting over the line. They’re hard to get the ball off, and they’re disciplined, in terms of conceding territory and giving away penalties. They’re probably one of the hardest teams in the world to play against.”
Whatever happens between now and then, the meeting on March 16th will be Schmidt’s 30th and last Six Nations game as head coach of Ireland, and Gatland’s 60th and last with Wales. Not that there’ll be a song and dance made about this, even by the Welsh.
“He’s never been overly affectionate nor overly sentimental,” ventured their captain Alun Wyn Jones. “But he gets on with the squad pretty well. He’s made a conscious effort over the past two years to do that.”
“As a group of players we always respond when he puts the pressure on whether it’s in the press or to us behind closed doors. There is also the point about changing things. Gats has only changed when we needed to, not because people said we needed to. He’s been pretty unwavering, and we’ve had a couple of good runs off the back of it.”
“I have seen a lot of romantic things written and said about Gats, but there will be no cakes and candles in our camp,” added Jones. “We want to win the Six Nations and the biggest compliment you can pay Warren is you want to play for your coach.”
“We’d like to be part of the big decisions at the end of the tournament; hopefully that will be the case.”