Rugby

Gatland the master of mind over matter

2016-09-07 22:08
Warren Gatland (AFP)

Edinburgh - Warren Gatland has a woeful record as Wales coach against southern Hemisphere sides but a series win for the British and Irish Lions over world champions New Zealand next year would consign that to a mere footnote.

The 52-year-old Kiwi, who has led Wales to three Six Nations titles since taking over in 2007, did guide the Lions to a series victory over Australia in 2013.

However, the All Blacks are an entirely different challenge to an Australian side that was all over the place not helped by then coach Robbie Deans' inconsistent selections.

Gatland's task in becoming only the second Lions coach -- Carwyn James triumphing in 1971 -- to win a series in the land of the long white cloud has been termed by many as 'mission impossible'.

However, that sort of phrase is exactly the sort the pugnacious former top-class hooker relishes in dismantling.

The Hamilton-born Gatland is a master of the understated wind-up, happy to play mind games with opponents if there should be the faintest chance of an advantage.

He would undopubtedly have been capped by the All Blacks himself but for the iconic Sean Fitzpatrick standing in his way and in an era when replacements weren't permitted.

He played 17 non-international matches for New Zealand, and racked up a record 140 appearances for Waikato before retiring in 1995.

Gatland was appointed as the 20th Welsh national coach in November 2007 and his start could not have been any better, leading Wales to the 2008 Six Nations championship title and the nation's 10th Grand Slam just four months later.

He first touched down in Europe as player/coach for Irish side Galwegians, opting to stay on after the 1989 New Zealand tour.

In 1996, he took over at unfashionable Irish province Connacht and succeeded Brian Ashton as Ireland coach in 1998.

With a record of 18 wins, one draw and 19 losses, the Irish rugby union somewhat controversially decided not to renew Gatland's contract and gave the job to his assistant, Eddie O'Sullivan, in 2001.

That decision still rankles with Gatland to this day and if there is a country he puts top of his list when it comes to winding up it is the boys in green.

From Ireland, Gatland moved to London, joining the coaching staff of Wasps and was named director of rugby at the club in 2002.

Wasps flourished under his guidance, winning a hat-trick of Premiership titles in 2003, 2004 and 2005, the European Challenge Cup in 2003 and European Cup in 2004.

But Gatland left at the end of the 2004/05 season to return to New Zealand, where he was installed as coach to Waikato's NPC side, which went on to win the Air New Zealand Cup title in 2006.

He joined the Waikato Chiefs Super 14 team in 2006 as technical advisor before taking the reins as Wales head coach in December 2007.

Not only was there a Grand Slam in 2008, but a second in 2012 and a Six Nations title in 2013.

Despite breaking two ankles, Gatland recovered sufficiently enough to then lead the Lions on their 2-1 victory over Australia, a first series win since 1997.

The outspoken coach came in for an enormous amount of flak for dropping Irish legend Brian O'Driscoll for the third decisive game, but was totally vindicated after the Lions came away with a record 41-16 win.

Cynics in Wales, however, will point at Gatland's poor record against the south hemisphere trio of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa -- just three victories in 33 matches since he took over.

Indeed in last year's World Cup a fine victory over hosts England in the pool stage could not be capitalised on against Australia -- who they failed to break down even when the Wallabies were down to 13 players -- or an eminently beatable South Africa in the quarter-finals.

But critics aside, there is no doubt Gatland has transformed the Welsh XV into viable contenders in Europe with a tight-knit group of players based around some individual excellence.

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