Gatland providing calm amid Welsh club chaos
Published 26/01/2014 | 02:30
Warren Gatland invoked the 1970s at the recent Six Nations launch, a golden era when Wales ruled the old Five Nations and regarded their club system as the envy of the world.
When one world-class player took his leave, often to rugby league, another invariably replaced him. It was a time of plenty and, if the men in red tended to fall just short against the might of the southern hemisphere, they strutted their way through Europe.
They finished first in the Championship six times that decade and joint-first twice. Wales have lost six Championship matches this decade, one in the past two campaigns, and go into the 2014 championship contemplating a third successive title. But, starkly and casting the blackest of clouds over their campaign, their club game, headed by four regions, is the envy of no one.
"From a national point of view we are in a good place," Gatland said. "We have achieved a lot for a country that has a small playing base, doing well in the Six Nations for the last couple of years, and we want to continue that run. If we can sort out the politics of the club game, getting some peace and harmony, that would be nice."
The need for peace and harmony is an understatement of Wales's problem.
Playing numbers are falling, football is attracting more spectators at professional level, including internationals, and another of the country's top players, Leigh Halfpenny, last week became the 11th international to move to France or England.
The environment developed by Gatland, Wales's head coach since early in 2008, has provided calm among the chaos, an oasis where players can forget about the strife that has left the regions on the point of telling the Welsh Rugby Union what it can do with its bulky, control-obsessed revised participation agreement and creating an Anglo-Welsh league with Premiership Rugby.
Winning the Six Nations for what would be an unprecedented third consecutive time – England did it in the Four Nations when William Gladstone was prime minister – will be nothing compared with reconciling the regions and the WRU in a dispute that is ostensibly financial but has control at its heart. The union is envious of the way the other major nations, with the exceptions of France and England, run their professional sides from the centre, one reason why a resolution over the future of the Heineken Cup has been elusive.
It is likely that Wales will field 11 players in their opening match against Italy in Cardiff on Saturday who featured in the victorious Lions Test series against the Wallabies. It would have been 12 but for the injury the centre Jonathan Davies suffered against South Africa in November, although he may return for the encounter with France.
Wales's success in the 2011 World Cup, when they reached the semi-final and were within a kick of beating France despite playing the last hour with 14 men, and in the last two Six Nations has made their players targets for clubs in France and England, driving up wages to such an extent that the regions, who operate under a salary cap of £3.5m, cannot compete.
Three players left the Wales camp after three days to return to their clubs but not the wing George North who, when he signed for Northampton last year, won the contractual right to be released to Wales for matches and training periods outside the official international window. The Saints were last month fined £60,000 for breaching the Premiership Rugby agreement on release and pledged not to do it again, including when North's contract is up for renewal.
"If you are a club or director of rugby you could understand them taking a hard stance but George is a young man who is desperate to play international rugby," Gatland said. "For me he has been the best signing in world rugby over the last year or so of any player in the Northern Hemisphere, from a playing and business point of view. He creates interest."
North will be key to Wales's prospects with his ability to break tackles and his counterattacking threat. Gatland has noted how Northampton have used him in the centre but he is likely to remain on the wing for Wales and selectively brought into midfield.
What marks Wales out as favourites is the number of players they have who can claim to be world-class: Halfpenny, North, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips behind, Gethin Jenkins, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton at forward with Alex Cuthbert, Dan Lydiate, Richard Hibbard and Toby Faletau Test Lions.
"As a group we do not take any short cuts," said Phillips, another of the French exiles. "Gats has instilled a work ethic mentality and everything is run professionally. History may beckon but we cannot look beyond Italy. People who do not know much about rugby might think it is an easy game but they beat France first-up last year and we know it will be incredibly physical."
Wales's second match, against Ireland, at the Aviva, should be a defining moment in the destiny of the title. A home match against France and a trip to Twickenham follow and Wales under Gatland have become adept at surviving a route march. They no longer suffer from mental fragility in the Six Nations. They are as hard-nosed as their master.