Gatland struggles to protect players from themselves
The internet age has changed rugby's social scene for ever, writes paul rees
There were a few Golfs but not many buggies around the Wales squad's headquarters in the Vale of Glamorgan when they held their media session last week.
The electric golf cart allegedly commandeered by the flanker Andy Powell hours after last weekend's victory over Scotland and driven to a nearby M4 service station was parked in a pound in Cardiff, a symbol of how Wales have stalled this season.
Powell was thrown out of the squad after being charged with drink-driving and, instead of being able to reflect quietly on one of the most dramatic finishes to a Six Nations match, the Wales coach, Warren Gatland, found himself, not for the first time, having to discipline a player after allowing his charges, who had been in camp for more than three weeks, to have a night out in Cardiff.
Gatland's playing career ended as the lights were going out on amateurism, a time when players and supporters, not to forget reporters, mingled after matches. No matter how much beer loosened tongues and relaxed inhibitions, any indiscretions remained private. The internet era has changed that and Gatland this month asked a lawyer who specialises in defamation, privacy and reputation management to address the players on the perils of posting messages on social networking websites.
"It's been a tough week," Gatland says as he looks forward to Friday's match against France at the Millennium Stadium. "Everyone has to realise things have changed in the professional era. You have to make sure players are disciplined off the field and we are looking at the way we do things going forward when it comes to allowing players to have a few drinks after a match: we will have to keep things in-house and players will no longer be able to go out in public, even with bodyguards.
"We had a no-alcohol policy after the game against England and returned to Wales that night. After Scotland, with no game the following weekend, we agreed that the players could go out for a few drinks, stressing the fact that they were responsible for the decisions they made. If you keep players in camp for six or seven weeks and never allow them any sort of release, tension will build up. But everyone has cameras now: images and footage can be on the internet in no time and I do not think it will be long before every international side does any celebrating in private."
Gatland says he has not closed the door on Powell, who was last year one of four players given an official warning after drunken antics in Cardiff bars after victory over England were made public. "Everyone makes mistakes," the coach says.
"Andy called me to thank me for giving him his chance in international rugby and for being supportive of him, apologising for what he did. I am tough on discipline but you have to give players the opportunity to make amends. Andy will play no further part in this year's Six Nations but after that it is up to him."
A year ago, when Wales were preparing for their third match of the tournament -- again against France but in Paris -- they had to discipline Powell and three others. Their run of eight successive Six Nations victories came to an end in the Stade de France when they blew a 13-3 lead.
This season they have found themselves playing catch-up, unable to make up a 17-point gap on England but scoring 17 points in the last few minutes to sensationally overhaul Scotland.
"We have shown tremendous character but we must stop giving teams starts," says Gatland, who will field a new second-row combination against France with Alun Wyn Jones injured and Jonathan Thomas moving to the back row to fill the vacancy left by Powell.
"We play a high-risk game and mistakes are a consequence of that. I do not want us to become a side that kicks all the time but we have to be smart in the way we play. We have won nine of our 12 Six Nations matches in my time here but we have to kick on again."
Shane Williams needs one try to beat Gareth Edwards' Wales record of 18 in the championship: if the wing reaches the landmark, he will not celebrate prematurely as he did before touching down for the winning score against Scotland. "I am embarrassed about that," he says. "I did not realise what I had done until afterwards and had to watch the tape with one eye closed. I will not try to force things: if a chance comes my way, it comes."
Les Bleus are not the only French team on Williams's mind. He is a target for Toulon but he has another year on his contract with the Ospreys. "It is flattering when a big club like that wants you," he said. "I have not really had time to think about it. All that matters at the moment is beating France, not going there."
Wales v France,
Friday RTE2 & BBC1 8.0pm