September 13, 2019 / 6:02 AM / 2 months ago

Rugby-Upset-merchant Gatland eyes one last heist with Wales

LONDON, Sept 13 (Reuters) - George W. Bush was the U.S. President, the Beijing Olympics were months away and Lehman Brothers was still solvent when Warren Gatland unveiled his debut coaching selection for Wales in the 2008 Six Nations against England.

The New Zealander’s side produced a shock 26-19 victory to beat England at home for the first time in 20 years, powered by the boot of James Hook, and Gatland’s Wales have been upsetting opponents in both senses of the word ever since.

The longest-serving coach among the top-tier nations bows out after this World Cup, the only major title he has not won in a glittering career that includes an unprecedented three Six Nations Grand Slams as well as two successful Lions tours.

Wales conceded a record low of just two tries in the first of those Gatland Grand Slams in 2008, and the Kiwi has built his side since on miserly defence and physical power.

That’s not to say there has been no evolution.

Critics of early-era Gatland caricatured “Warrenball” as a relentless wave of red shirts, worn by the likes of hulking centre Jamie Roberts, slamming into opposing defences until they buckled- the rugby equivalent of a soviet infantry advance.

It was undeniably effective, taking the Lions to a 2-1 victory over a strong Australia side in 2013, but detractors said the emphasis on brute force made for turgid viewing.

Those criticisms continued on the 2017 trip to New Zealand, taking their toll on Gatland who said in tour diaries that media attacks such as a tabloid story depicting him as a clown felt like a needle slowly draining his blood.

Himself a long-serving hooker for New Zealand club Waikato, the burly Gatland had the pleasure of seeing son Bryn run out against his father’s Lions side for New Zealand Provincial Barbarians in an early tour game.

Even the toughest critics would have been forced to swallow their words at the end of the tour as Gatland’s likeable Lions played some lightning counter-attacking rugby on the way to a highly creditable 1-1 series draw against the world’s best.

He is now in the top tier of international coaches, beloved in Wales in particular for the way in which he has used savvy squad rotation to build strength in depth despite the declining fortunes of the domestic provincial teams.

A relatively poor record against Southern Hemisphere opposition is the one blot on his record with Wales, and one that he will need to improve on if he is to take them to a first World Cup final.

Seen as a future All Blacks coach, Gatland is set to return to his native country after this year’s World Cup and he will also coach the Lions for a third time in 2021.

Television cameras at the end of this year’s Six Nations Grand Slam appeared to catch a tear rolling down Gatland’s cheek as the Principality Stadium crowd chanted their beloved coach’s name.

“I think it was the rain,” he told reporters with a smile.

Few would begrudge him a repeat if his time with Wales culminates in a first taste of World Cup glory for both.

Reporting by Lawrence White, editing by Ed Osmond

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