As Warren Gatland stood in one of the hospitality boxes of the Principality Stadium last December, drink in hand, the smile on his face was a little sheepish as he uncomfortably found himself the centre of attention at the Welsh Rugby Union’s Christmas gathering.
Having just returned to the role he’d only vacated three years prior, after the sacking of Wayne Pivac, these Christmas drinks now doubled up as an informal welcome (back) ceremony. “I’d like to thank the WRU for keeping me away from the England job,” he joked, as that reticent smile grew a little. Some 284 days later, the smile was no longer reluctant. Instead, the Wales coach was beaming as he stared up at the stands in Lyon, having just seen Wales hammer Australia to secure a World Cup quarter-final.
There have been times during those 280-odd days when Gatland had little to smile about. For starters, getting the coaches he wanted over the line didn’t go to plan.
To get the latest rugby news sent straight to your inbox, sign up to WalesOnline’s daily rugby newsletter here.
Former assistant Rob Howley was lined up, but the WRU blocked the move. It wouldn’t be the last obstacle to overcome. Far from it. There were already suggestions of discontent among players as Welsh rugby’s issues threatened to come to a head. One player not long removed from the Test squad described Wales’ training camps as like “Groundhog Day” or, in other words, “same old s**t every time”.
As the Six Nations lurched from one shambolic twist to another, Gatland occasionally raised his head above the parapet. He didn’t always say the right thing. The sexism scandal that engulfed the Union meant that, from the off, he was answering questions about off-field topics. That wasn’t always for the best. And then there was the contract disputes.
As Welsh rugby veered towards strike action in the week of the England Test, like a unmanned dinghy crashing off the rocks on its way towards the rapids, the Vale of Glamorgan team base more often resembled an episode of The Thick of It.
Spin and counter-spin cancelled each other out in bizarre fashion – those in the Union seemed to think the big story of the day was Netflix cameras being asked to leave by Alun Wyn Jones as he entered a press conference, while some present from Netflix appeared to believe it was the Welsh players walking out of a sponsor dinner that was the newsworthy item from the past 24 hours. Dizzying times indeed.
The mood was fraught. Gatland did little to help by claiming the players had hurt his feelings in a newspaper column. At that very moment, the divide felt almost unscalable in camp.
And so, for Gatland, the switch flicked. “There were a lot of things going on before the Six Nations,” said Gatland. “Contract issues and the players getting offered them, so then just understanding the frustrations from them in terms of security and future and families.
“I probably didn’t realise at the time the impact that had on the coaching staff and probably even myself. I had to sit back and let things unfold until after the Six Nations when you can get a squad together.”
So Gatland eased off and let the Six Nations almost wash over him. A week in Nice between Tests against Italy and France was a good excuse to get away from the Welsh rugby goldfish bowl. It felt like it worked. Players and coaches seemed relaxed in the south of France, enjoying coffees together and exploring Monaco. One coach, perhaps unaware he was a few tables down from some journalists who – after a Six Nations from hell – hardly wanted to make themselves known, met up with some mates for a pint on some rickety patio furniture outside a café on the Promenade des Anglais.
There, he spoke glowingly not only about his fellow coaches, but the players in camp. Even after all that happened, he couldn’t have sounded more enthusiastic. Certainly, the new coaches who Gatland brought in have all found their feet this summer after being thrown in at the deep end.
By the time a Six Nations campaign that often felt like it would never end did indeed come to a close, Wales found themselves in the Stade de France with the sense that some togetherness was quietly growing in camp. Now was the time for Gatland to speak.
After a few missteps during the campaign, the message was on point this time. Matter of factly, he declared post-match: “We will surprise some teams in the World Cup by how good we will be and how much we will improve having that time together to prepare.”
Since then, the messaging has never really changed. In typical Gatland fashion, once there’s a point to be made, he’ll hammer it home in press conferences until it’s fact. He’s said several times about how he realised he had to let the Six Nations go, while he’s promised Wales will do “something special” on more than one occasion.
Now, the idea that Wales hadn’t received enough credit for the wins over Fiji and Portugal has started to become a recurring theme. It might not last much longer after the dominant win over Australia, but the seeds for that particular notion were planted back as far as May.
“There hasn’t been a lot of positivity about rugby in Wales,” Gatland said back then. “We’d like to change the narrative and get as much positivity out there as possible. That has a huge psychological effect on the players in terms of trying to send those messages. I am excited and I am telling you now that this team will do something special. I love Wales being written off and people can keep doing that because it just makes us stronger.”
When he’s at his best, the messages Gatland gives out are repeated enough until they’re accepted by those both inside and outside the squad. You could sense early last week in Versailles that, for as happy as Wales are in camp, there was a perception that they hadn’t been given their fair dues yet.
Gatland will have first fuelled that, and then he’ll have harnessed it. Wales were desperate – for the right reasons as Gatland put it – to make a statement on Sunday.
The biggest key to where Wales are now is the sheer amount of time they’ve spent together. It’s now four months since they met up. With the curtains drawn in the Hensol suite for their first team meeting as a full wider training squad, Gatland outlined what he expected.
“I think you guys have been great in the last four weeks,” he said. “We all worked pretty hard. We’re the smallest playing Tier One nation in terms of numbers, resources and we’ve always punched above our weight.
“We’ve never given in, we’ll be f***ing mentally tough, we’ll be in good shape and we’ll work hard. That’s what we’ve got to hang our hat on. We are not going to give up”.
Even when there were distractions, like Rhys Carre being dropped from the squad, Joe Hawkins being ineligible to carry on playing for Wales, Cory Hill heading back to Japan or Rhys Webb, Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric announcing their international retirements, the message from Wales was largely the same.
They were building towards something bigger, with Gatland continually dropping in the same soundbites about longer preparation times and World Cups being like coaching a club team. Training camps in Switzerland and Turkey pushed players to the edge.
Gatland has continuously spoken of going to dark places. The idea being that if you’re hurting, the opposition will be hurting more. Occasionally, he seemed a little frustrated with the description of his training camps as ‘brutal’. It became a bit of a running joke that every time he explained how they weren’t, another player would then go and describe them as ‘brutal’ in the next press conference.
Gatland tends to place great emphasis on the importance of words and sending subtle messages. Another often repeated message is that when someone asks him how he’s doing, the answer will be ‘good’, rather than ‘not too bad’. The latter, he feels, is veering towards a negative mindset rather than a positive one.
That said, he might not have minded the players describing what they went through this year as ‘brutal’. “There’s no team in the world who worked as hard as you guys have; no one has gone through what you guys have gone through in the last couple of months, I guarantee it,” he told the squad.
But clearly, as well as fuelling the belief that Wales will be as fit as any team in this tournament, if not more so, it also created a bond after the issues earlier in the year. When Nicky Smith “mastered his own fear” during one Green Mile military-style fitness camp exercise, the overwhelming memory for Gatland was how the other players were cheering him on.
“All coming together and being on the same page with the pre-camps in Turkey and Switzerland, we had some home truths out there,” said Liam Williams after the Australia match. “Once we get on the same page we’re, as the head coach said, a hard team to beat.”
That’s a big thing in camp. Whereas, to his own detriment, Eddie Jones continually spoke about winning and the need to be victorious on his return to the Wallabies job – something he claimed he had to do as citing the process would just be seen as an excuse – Gatland hasn’t felt the need to talk up what Wales will do, other than those repeated mantras of “something special” and “being hard to beat”.
The external pressure in Welsh rugby alone is often enough. While Jones made winning and the result the focus, Gatland made working hard for each other the process and the focus. So far, it has worked well.
There’s a confidence in the game model. The buzzword right now from coaches is ‘clarity’ and Wales’ players appear to have that in bucket loads. Collectively, they know exactly what they’re doing.
The mood in camp (granted it couldn’t have been much worse) is now better. Noticeably better. During the Six Nations one international looked shattered, almost slumped over his car’s steering wheel as he prepared to drive away from the Vale base amid the strike week.
“It’s been a long day, mate,” he sighed as he wound down the window, without a hint of understatement. Now, as he walks under the shade of the trees on his way to Wales’ secluded training base, he’s all smiles as he makes sure to greet every member of the travelling press pack.
The decision to go down the route of co-captains with the youthful Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake seemed inspired in only continuing that burgeoning optimism within the camp.
The pair, both fluent Welsh speakers, bounce off one another. Those in camp say that, despite his seemingly quiet demeanour, Morgan is a good laugh around his team-mates, while you need only watch Lake for a few minutes to know that’s certainly the case with him.
Gatland feels like there’s a balance to this squad, in the sense that they can have a laugh but they also knuckle down. The first part of that environment is clear to see close up in France.
There’s a deck of playing cards with a picture of Dan Biggar adorning the back of each card, while players engage in a lucky dip to find out which restaurants they’ll be eating at in the evenings. It’s a chance to mix up the social groups and grow those bonds further.
That extends beyond the playing party. Gatland has continually referenced the sacrifices made by not just players, but coaches and staff. And the importance of family is something the Wales coach has always placed great stock in.
His wife Trudi is the focal point for organising things for the players’ family and friends out here in France. “They’re very good at getting everyone together,” said prop Gareth Thomas. “It makes a hell of a lot of difference for us mentally when they go away and we go back to work and just focus on rugby then.”
How Gatland got Wales to this point wasn’t by reinventing the wheel. In fact, throughout the course of the year, he continually told everyone how he would do it. Do that enough and it eventually becomes reality. Certainly, those in Wales camp believe right now.