Excitement building for autumn clashes
Warren Gatland is eager to justify the faith placed in him, writes Paul Rees
Wales normally part with their head coach in the run-up to a World Cup -- they have done so ever since Ron Waldron left the job before the 1991 tournament. Not this time, though. Warren Gatland has signed a contract that will keep the New Zealander in charge until the end of the 2015 edition.
The Welsh Rugby Union, mindful of the contract extension the IRFU agreed with Eddie O'Sullivan before the 2007 World Cup which they regretted months later, as well as the premature faith placed in Fabio Capello by the English Football Association, have given themselves an opt-out clause should Wales's World Cup campaign prove as ignominious as the one four years ago.
"The Welsh Rugby Union is looking for stability but there is a clause that if we are not great at the World Cup they have an out," Gatland says.
"I understand that and I am not naive enough to realise that they won't want to protect their own interests. If performances go and you lose a few games, you get the sack. That's sport. We have to perform as a side and the union needs to put us under pressure to get performances and results."
It was only a year ago that Gatland was talking about his ambition to get Wales into the top five of the world rankings. They go into next month's series of four internationals in Cardiff against Australia, South Africa, Fiji and New Zealand in ninth, below Scotland and Argentina and one place above the Fijians.
"It was a very tough decision to stay on," says Gatland, who had an offer to return to New Zealand to coach a Super 15 side. "I just felt there was unfinished business in terms of continuity. The vast majority of the players in the squad will be around for the 2015 World Cup. I see my role as bringing through coaches as well as players and working with the age-groups. It is about benefiting Welsh rugby as a whole in the long term.
"The problem with Welsh rugby is that we struggle with depth of numbers. When we have a full squad to pick from, we are capable of beating anyone.
"Since the 2008 grand slam we have been without four or five key players every campaign but we go into November missing only Jamie Roberts and a certain dancer [Gavin Henson]. We have more depth than when I arrived, but certain areas are a concern."
Outside centre is one position. The leading two in Wales are both New Zealanders, Regan King and Casey Laulala. Gatland used James Hook there last season, but he is considering using the Osprey in his preferred position of fly-half for at least one of the November Tests.
"The problem with 13 is that there are two or three foreigners in that position with the regions," Gatland says. "We have to address that and you have to take the good with the bad. I am a bit surprised Ospreys have not started James at out-half this season. He had 20 minutes there the other day and did well. We have not ruled him out as a 10."
Then there is the issue of the captaincy. Ryan Jones has been in charge ever since Gatland took over at the end of 2007, but he has just returned to action after recovering from a leg injury and Ospreys used him in the second row against London Irish last week because of the form Jonathan Thomas had shown at No 8.
"There always seems to be a big issue about the captain of Wales," Gatland says. "It always makes headlines but it's about picking the best man for the job and I struggle to understand why such a big deal is made of it. Ryan has been injured and he has not had a lot of rugby. He was outstanding in the second row but we see him as a loose forward and I hope he gets 80 minutes there for Ospreys on Sunday. If so, he puts himself into serious contention to start against Australia. Otherwise we would probably think he was underdone for the Wallabies. We will see what he is like when he comes into camp. I can't be fairer than that."
Gatland's target for next month is to start well against the Wallabies and improve. Wales have a poor record against the major southern hemisphere nations with only three victories in the professional era: against South Africa in 1999 and Australia in 2005 and 2008. They have not beaten New Zealand since 1953, while they lost to Fiji in the 2007 World Cup.
"The two games we have to target are Australia and South Africa," he says. "New Zealand come last, which is good because we are usually stronger at the end of a campaign than at the start of it. I am just looking forward to some excellent Test matches: a year ago, rugby was dominated by territory, defence and kicking but excitement is in the air now and the encounter with the Wallabies could be a classic."