Fraser Watson takes a look at the highs and lows of Wales coach Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland before game against South Africa

In 2007, Warren Gatland swanned into the most scrutinised hot seat in Welsh sport and duly assumed the role of messiah.

Winning a Grand Slam in your inaugural season as head coach does that for you in Wales.

But if his tenure kicked off amidst euphoria, it will end with feelings of emptiness after another chance to reach an historic Rugby World Cup final slipped by.

And there is plenty to analyse in-between.

There is of course, still a bronze medal play off match to come with New Zealand on Friday and that won’t be without significance. Gatland’s home nation against his adopted one - and a final chance for him to take the one scalp that has alluded him in charge of Wales, as it has every Welsh coach and team since December 1953.

And yet, while a third placed finish would also represent the best World Cup campaign for Wales since the tournament began in 1987, the reality is the result won’t define Gatland’s reign in any shape or form.

So let’s look at the factors that will.....

Great expectations:

Inevitably, Sunday’s defeat prompted a post-mortem via social media, one that for most combined pride with dejection. But it was Rugby World writer Paul Williams who perhaps offered the most striking perspective.

Responding to a query as to which of the last three World Cup exits had caused the most heartbreak, he tweeted ‘Watching Wales in the 90s. These were all a pleasure.’

Of course, Gatland didn’t take over until 2007, but the above notion can still be applied. Prior to his appointment Wales had endured a calamitous 12 months, fleetingly masked by beating England to avoid a Six Nations wooden spoon. In the five World Cups before his appointment, Wales had emerged from the group stage twice, and on both occasions (1999 and 2003) a quarter final exit was deemed satisfactory.

Remember Graham Henry was initially hailed the ‘great redeemer’ after a Five Nations campaign that yielded, wait for it, two wins in four matches.

Significant then, that expectations under Gatland became such that not winning this World Cup has been deemed a disappointment. And were it not for Ross Moriarty’s late try against France, we’d be analysing abject failure.

The past 12 years have been far from flawless. But in terms of what the Welsh rugby public considers success, Gatland has raised the bar significantly.

Organising chaos:

The 2005 Grand Slam under Mike Ruddock proved a false dawn, albeit a hazily glorious one.

Gareth Jenkins brought romance and passion, but little by way of structure or results.

Gatland and his staff however, brought the Welsh national side up to speed in an area in which they had been lagging behind - professionalism.

Players involved in the early part of his reign spoke of the increased intensity in training, and an extra emphasis on preparation, fitness, nutrition, and recovery. Suddenly, science became a feature of the national set-up and if you want to delve deeper on that, just type ‘Polish cryotherapy chambers’ into google.

Perhaps at times science wrestled with common sense – replacements seemed frequently pre-empted and in 2017, Ross Moriarty was having a stormer against England when hauled off because his GPS level had momentarily dropped. It backfired.

But knit picking aside, while much has been made of Gatland’s perceived strengths, his attention to detail has often gone under-stated.

The case for the defence:

Like the head coach himself, for much of the past 12 years the Welsh style has been uncompromising.

Call it ‘Warrenball’, call it physicality, call it a solid defensive structure largely credited to Sean Edwards, success and entertainment rarely paired up under Gatland.

He was results driven. And sure enough, he leaves behind a side with a winning mentality that has developed a knack of staying in games they shouldn’t.

But Gatland has never been short of exciting backline players. Did his teams fully utilise the weapons?

Not often enough. And Sunday’s arm wrestle painfully mirrored this theory.

Unlucky with injuries?:

By the time Wales lost their 2015 Rugby World Cup quarter final to South Africa, they were ravaged by injuries.

By the time Wales lost their 2019 Rugby World Cup semi final to South Africa, they were ravaged by injuries.

To put the above down to a double dose of bad luck would be naïve.

Conditioning rugby players to be at their physical peak is one thing. Tailoring that to have them at full tilt for a World Cup tournament is another. Gatland would oversee brutal training camps, the latest pre-tournament one in extreme heat in Turkey. Couple that with a game plan based on physicality, and it is small wonder Wales were again walking wounded by the latter stages.

No one doubts Wales were meticulously prepared for the last two World Cups. But harsh as it may sound, the injury lists from both raises questions of management.

Warren Gatland before game against New Zealand

Ruthless and resilient:

In November 2014 Gatland appeared at a Pembrokeshire Pathway rugby dinner. He was engaging, witty, humble, and amusing.

I wasn’t fooled by any of it.

By then I had become well used to his cold demeanour in press conferences, and his frequent refusal to answer questions properly in the wake of a defeat.

That hardened edge signified his character outside the press room as well as in it.

His ruthlessness often appeared ego-driven. He dispatched the likes of Dwayne Peel, Adam Jones, and James Hook when the majority felt they still had much to offer. He left Mike Phillips stranded on 99 international caps, he culled Rob Evans for the World Cup after he’d been instrumental in a Grand Slam.

And yet, his belligerence was frequently justified. Making Sam Warbuton captain aged only 21, calling up an 18-year-old George North, throwing in Rhys Carre. Gatland was never afraid to make big calls, didn’t remotely care about raising eyebrows, and considered sentiment an alien concept.

It’s all too easy now to gloss over that during his tenure, he took some hammerings from the Welsh media and public alike.

He wouldn’t have given a dam about any of them.

The legacy left:

A common yardstick for coaches is whether they leave a side in a better state than what they found it.

Gatland has done so - and only the most ignorant of his detractors would argue otherwise.

He has overseen three Six Nations Grand Slams in 12 years, compared to three in 32 before that. He started his reign with a Wales team that had fleetingly flirted with the elite. He ends it with a Wales team firmly among that same elite.

That’s not to say the success of his tenure isn’t tainted. A World Cup final appearance would have enhanced his legacy considerably and those two semi-final defeats will grind for evermore. A record of eight wins and 35 losses against Southern Hemisphere opposition also betrays the perceived progress.

A record he will hope to marginally improve come Friday of course.

Did the minefield that is Welsh regional rugby help or hinder him? In truth, probably both. The WRU doesn’t have the finances to throw extortionate money at both the domestic and international game. Gatland may not have had his best players based in Wales and competing for top European honours, but he did have a system whereby regions were at the mercy of the national side.

Of course, he won’t be away for long. A stint back in New Zealand with the Chiefs awaits before a third Lions tour in 2021.

The irony being it’s South Africa who lie in wait. By that point they may be World Champions, but regardless they’ll remain the side who ended Gatland’s chances of a glorious farewell with Wales.

So don’t be surprised if, as he’s done so often with his critics these past 12 years, he gives the Springboks the perfect riposte…….

Warren Gatland and Alun Wyn Jones pose with the 6 Nations trophy