Charging in a new direction

2008-06-06 00:00

Some of the Peter de Villiers’s theories and opinions about rugby will either be proved or disproved in Bloemfontein today, but one thing he is definitely right about is his high regard for his counterpart Warren Gatland.

The former All Black, who will be coaching the Welsh team that face the Springboks in the first Test under De Villiers’s watch, was described this week by the Bok mentor as the best coach in world rugby. That is praise indeed, and some might argue that Robbie Deans challenges strongly, but Gatland cannot be far off the top rung of the imaginary coaching ladder.

The presence of Gatland in the Welsh dug-out today should be cause for concern for the Boks, particularly as they have opted to start without a significant portion of the team that won the World Cup last year.

When you listen to him speak at press conferences, Gatland certainly comes across as a clever, canny man, and his willingness to be innovative extends back to his playing days. When he was first called up to the All Blacks in 1988, it is said that Gatland introduced his fellow players to a part Australian rules, part Gaelic football game aimed at improving their all-round skills.

He rose through the coaching ranks with haste after his retirement from rugby in 1995, following a career where he amassed a number of caps for Waikato, with success in the Irish leagues leading to his appointment as Ireland coach in 1998.

Although he did not achieve success with Ireland, who bombed at the 1999 World Cup, he went on to take Wasps from the relegation zone in the English premiership to safety and to three consecutive titles, with a crowning victory in the Heineken Cup.

Success was immediate for Gatland when he took charge of Waikato, winning the inaugural Air New Zealand Cup as coach of the team he played for. His time with the Welsh has been as spectacular, and he arrives today never having tasted defeat as coach of Wales.

While there is certainly more raw playing talent in South Africa than there is in Wales, the enormous chasm between Gatland and De Villiers in term of international coaching experience has to temper the general presumption that the Boks will win comfortably.

They should win comfortably if, as assistant coach Gary Gold put it, “they build an innings before trying to execute the plans”, but Gold will know better than anyone that Wales will be a different proposition to what they were before Gatland, and that he will have worked out some plan that might make life unexpectedly difficult for the hosts.

“I do know Warren and [assistant coach] Shaun Edwards … and I can tell you we will be in for a very physical game, with Wales looking to the forwards to lay a platform before setting their backs,” he said.

The Welsh will start today with nine of the players that were in the starting team when they won the Six Nations title. Gold has studied the Welsh, and reckons the loss of six key players from that team will have an effect, particularly Martyn Williams, the openside flank.

A name Gold did not mention is that of Gavin Henson, who is also a talisman to the Welsh, so his absence will be felt too, but Sonny Parker and Tony Shanklin are big centres who will test Adrian Jacobs, a player known to be suspect on defence.

The Bok management were all effusive about the way the squad has gelled and assistant coach, Dick Muir, spoke about the importance of having senior players.

That does beg a question on why so many of the World Cup winning players, such as Victor Matfield, are not starting. If the Welsh start well and grab a lead, the new Bok coach may just find he has taken an unnecessary risk by not sticking to tried and trusted combinations.

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