The Wales head coach was ultimately vindicated after the British and Irish Lions secured a 2-1 series victory against Australia last summer, despite initially causing outrage by dropping Ireland legend Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test.
He went with plan A and it worked where it so often hasn’t for Wales against the southern hemisphere sides.
The respective displays from Wales and South Africa in the first Test in Durban made clear that the tourists will have to pull something sensational out of the proverbial bag to get close to winning in Nelspruit.
There may have been improvements in the second half, but it was still 38-16 and there were still four tries conceded in the first half. The decision to make just two changes suggests that Gatland is looking to narrow a losing deficit than send a team out to win.
If ever there was a time to throw caution to the wind and give fringe players a chance to prove themselves on the big stage it is now, 16 months out from the World Cup and against the second best team in the world.
The next run-out Wales will have comes in the autumn Tests when the world’s top-three sides and Argentina all visit Cardiff. Even Gatland’s England and Ireland counterparts seem to think that is too late to experiment with youth and inexperience.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips may have won titles with Wales and the British and Irish Lions, but when was the last time the 31-year-old was one of Wales’s best players?
This season he remained first-choice No9 despite being sacked by Bayonne and barely getting a gig at new club Racing Métro, whilst his Scarlets counterpart Gareth Davies was lighting up the Pro12 on his way to finishing the season as the league’s top try-scorer. That sounds like a player in form.
Phillips may be a more physical scrum-half, but his slow distribution and lack of pace and creativity often stifles rather than helps Wales’s big backs when looking to build up momentum to get over the gainline.
Ospreys’s scrum-half Rhys Webb also briefly broke through before injuries ended his chances this summer and another Scarlets scrum-half Rhodri Williams should have been above Phillips, too.
Another debutant last week who saw his stock rise is Bristol-bound versatile back Matthew Morgan. He offered something different when he came off the bench to slot in at full-back, although his impact may have been exaggerated by the result being beyond doubt and South Africa easing off.
There is a good argument that his relative inexperience and lack of stature count against him, but it didn’t do Shane Williams any harm against the Springboks.
The age-old debate of who to start in the Wales 10 jersey came up too.
Morgan is an option, but there were calls for Gloucester-bound James Hook to get a chance after steering Wales to a win over the Eastern Province Kings and adding something different when he came on against the Springboks.
Unsurprisingly, Gatland opted for incumbent Dan Biggar. Not the most controversial decision given the coach’s treatment of Hook when it comes to selection in recent seasons.
The second row has also been an area for contention.
Tour captain Alun Wyn Jones was always a shoo-in, but Gatland has persisted with Luke Charteris, whose club was relegated from the Top 14 last month. Ian Evans, who improved the Wales set-piece when he came on, had been tipped for a start but the Ospreys man’s month doesn’t get any better after discovering that Toulon no longer want him as he doesn’t make the 23.
At least Gatland got one call right. Adam Jones has failed to adapt to the new scrum procedures that were brought in at the start of the season and has been dramatically out of form.
His club dropped him to the bench for the Pro12 season run-in, but Gatland selected him as first-choice for South Africa. If the iconic prop can’t get his game together in time for the autumn internationals in November, he should have played his last game for Wales. It would be a sad, but necessary, end to his international career.
Still, there is every chance that Gatland could recall him for the first Test in November at the Millennium Stadium regardless of form, if the coach’s form is anything to go by.
As social media has shown following the second Test squad announcement, Wales supporters are angry with team selections on this tour. The mood under the roof in Cardiff come November will be nothing short of apoplectic if he continues with the cardinal sin of selecting on reputation rather than form.
Welsh rugby has been stuck in a rut since the 2013 Six Nations championship win. Some would argue it has been longer than that. A number would lay the blame elsewhere.
There is no denying that Gatland has brought success to Welsh rugby since his arrival in 2007, but this is 2014 not 2008 and Wales have barely moved on.
Other nations, including near rivals England and Ireland, have seen new coaches come in, rip up the foundations and start again, planning for next year’s Rugby World Cup cycles and have become better for it, while the southern hemisphere nations are as far away for Wales as they ever were—for union financial issues, see Australia: they’re not doing too badly as a national team despite money problems in Australian rugby.
If another heavy defeat to South Africa happens with the largely the same players and same tactics on Saturday, the New Zealander—honoured with an OBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to rugby—should arguably do Welsh rugby one final service next week and walk away from his contract that sees him through to 2019.
The status quo is not yielding success and there seems to be little indication that there is a willingness to make it happen from a notoriously stubborn coach.
There is still just about enough time to find a replacement and there wouldn’t be a shortage of high-calibre candidates to would fancy a stab at taking the job in time for the new season.
On current showing in 2014, Wales won’t make it out of the pool stages at next year’s World Cup with England and Australia among the opposition, so the same conclusion with a new head coach 12 months into the role wouldn’t be a too much of a disappointment then the four-year cycle can begin with a leg up.
Of course, the ever-feckless Welsh Rugby Union rewarded Gatland in December with a new deal through to the end of the 2019 World Cup in Japan, almost certainly with an option for him to coach the Lions on their tour of New Zealand in 2017. That’s a hefty compensation package for any beleaguered employer should they choose to dispense with his services early.
Gatland has talked in the past about the great talent coming through the ranks of Welsh rugby. Indeed, he reiterated it when his new contract was announced, saying there was a fear factor in him and he would hate it if, in 10 years’ time, he watched Wales lose by 30 or 40 points and that talent go to waste. It wasn’t far off that on last week.
He also talked about an opportunity to put in place strategies for the future to make Wales as successful as possible and that jumping ship after next year’s Rugby World Cup would be a job half done.
The problem is he keeps faith with the same tactics and selecting players on former glories—one, two, three Six Nations titles—instead of having faith in the “incredibly exciting” quality young players who are in form to produce something different.
In a digital world and with so much preparation based around video analysis, there can’t be much that every other nation hasn’t seen of his tactics or gleaned first-hand from working under him on the Lions tours—the English, Irish and Scots admitted as much during this year’s Six Nations.
There was a time when he was bold, as with the O’Driscoll non-selection, and gave new players a chance: Jamie Roberts, Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton all became household names on the back of such endeavour.
With Wales not having an ‘A’ team, there is little opportunity to try out new players at a higher intensity than club level, which may be partly why Gatland selects the way he does unless forced to do so by serious injuries to his so-called favourites.
A glorified training match is not a contest, and even last month’s trial was the first in 20 years. Some players had a chance to step up for the senior side off the back of that, but Gatland and his team of assistants would not have learned much they hadn’t already seen.
For anyone over 20, who never played at the Junior World Championship, it would be entirely new territory and there is too much of a step up from U20 level to Test level that Wales desperately need to go back to the drawing board, whether with Gatland in charge or someone new.
The return of a stepping-stone ‘A’ team, like the one that Shane Williams and Tom Shanklin emerged from, is also essential to develop all this quality in Welsh rugby that Gatland talks about.
There has been no Wales A team for emerging talent to play in since it was abandoned in 2003 on financial grounds and while it may have been an aim in 2011 to resume it, nothing appears to be on the cards anytime soon. Even Italy and Argentina have second teams.
England Saxons, Ireland Wolfhounds and Scotland A still contest matches against each other every January ahead of the Six Nations. These aren’t just meaningless matches for TV audiences, but genuine opportunities in front of sell-out crowds to see if players can show what they can do and integrate them into a wider national team set-up or a chance to try something a bit different without jeopardising the success of the senior team.
England outside-half Freddie Burns started for the Saxons against the Wolfhounds and Scotland A in January off the back of a dismal first half of the Aviva Premiership and being dropped from the senior team by Stuart Lancaster after slipping to fourth-choice 10. On Saturday he will have started two matches against the All Blacks this month.
Likewise there were many Irish players given the opportunity to show what they can do in the Wolfhounds or Emerging squad. Some are new faces, but there are some familiar faces too who are not quite ready for the big step up or didn’t quite make it.
The majority of the upcoming faces in Welsh rugby would undoubtedly benefit from the opportunity to play together, including those thrown in at the deep end in recent months such as Ball, Morgan, Gareth Davies, Samson Lee, and those who were suffered a series defeat to Japan last summer while the star names were on the Lions tour.
If the sell-out trial match in Swansea was anything to go by, Wales could sell out ‘A’ team matches at the right venue against the right opposition.
Wales badly needs this and the IRB and other nations would surely support the creation of such teams to develop Welsh talent, and providing opportunities to the lesser rugby nations through the IRB Nations Cup or IRB Tbilisi Cup in June can only be a good thing for the development of the sport.
There may be big team selection questions that are causing headaches for the union, coaches and supporters alike, but the biggest question has to be: is Warren Gatland the right man to take Wale forward for another five years? There has to a growing concern that he is not.
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