Sunday 15 December 2019

Pressure on Warren Gatland to end 'Big Three' hoodoo

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland

Matt Majendie

Autumn has so often been the cruellest of seasons for Warren Gatland. Each time, Wales have promised to deliver against rugby's big three and each time they have come up agonisingly short.

Autumn 2014 has once again read like any time under Gatland's tenure, Wales on Saturday in the 34-16 loss to New Zealand succumbing to their 26th defeat in 27 attempts against the All Blacks, Australia or South Africa.

The riddle continues of why Wales always get so close but never cross the line. It has led some, including Lions hooker Shane Byrne, to question Gatland's future as head coach in the aftermath of a match where Wales had been level pegging for 69 minutes only to ship 19 points late on.

Former Leinster and Ireland star Byrne's argument is thus: "Warren Gatland will always go down as one of the greatest coaches and, particularly for Wales, he's done fantastic things but sometimes that's still not enough. Sometimes it needs change, freshening up, new ideas, a new way of approaching things and a new spirit in the squad.''

Those with the temerity to suggest such a course of action were shot down with, it has to be said, some venom by Gatland's No 2, Shaun Edwards, in a feisty response to the post-weekend criticism.

Asked if he felt Gatland was under pressure, Edwards virtually spat out his response: What do you mean pressure? Being a Test match rugby coach, every game has pressure. Being any sort of coach, any game has pressure.''

However, 2014 has been Wales' worst calendar year since 2010 and, under Gatland's entire tenure, they have a record of 33 wins, one draw and 35 defeats, 26 of them against the aforementioned big three.

Spring, though, has so often been Wales' annual coming of age, with two Six Nations titles in the last three years.

The Wales Rugby Union are not about to make Gatland a scapegoat for the team's failures, the belief being that he is the man to once again turn around the nation's fortunes as he did in 2011 when Wales were a kick away from a place in the World Cup final a year after winning just two of their 12 2010 Test matches Not to mention the fact he remains popular with his players.

But there is no denying that Wales are in dire need of victory over South Africa on Saturday.

It is an increasing mental issue for coaching staff and players.

There has been an element of the walking wounded in the camp. Prop Nicky Smith has been ruled out injured while Gethin Jenkins is a doubt so Scarlets prop Rob Evans is training with the squad this week.

Meanwhile the contingent of those playing in England, Paul James, Richard Hibbard and James Hook, have all returned to their clubs with the game falling outside the internationally recognised autumn window for Test rugby.

In addition, George North is following concussion protocol, while Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb are also doubts.

Whichever players take the field in Cardiff on Saturday, victory is the sole prerequisite but Edwards argued that slowly and surely Wales were edging towards that goal.

"We've had two games (against Australia and New Zealand) at this level,'' he added. "While it was a long time ago when I played, I remember that at the start of a season the first two games you really struggled and the third game you really should be able to handle that sort of intensity.

"I both games, we have acquitted ourselves relatively well and now we have to do it for 80 minutes to beat a southern hemisphere team.'' (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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