Warren Gatland admits he is “bricking himself” about next year as he plans to sign off from his 12 year reign as Wales coach on the highest of notes with a World Cup triumph in Japan.
The Kiwi his heading home after his third World Cup in charge and wants to improve on his fourth place finish in 2011 and quarter-final in 2015.
“The last thing I want to do is have a poor Six Nations and a poor World Cup, because the amount of work we’ve put in over the past 12 years has been huge,” said Gatland.
“I’ve loved my time here in Wales, but it’s time to move on. That’s why I’ll be really focused on doing the best job that I can, although I’m bricking myself about next year because I want it to be a good year.
“The next 12 months are pretty important — not so much November and the warm-up games, but the Six Nations, where it counts, and definitely the World Cup. Those are the competitions where we are judged and I hope I can leave these shores with my head held high.”
Gatland believes he has the players to pull off what would be one of the biggest coups in world sport by winning the World Cup. And he doesn’t feel it is a racing certainty that Steve Hansen’s All Blacks will make it three in a row in Japan.
“Ireland and ourselves and up there, there has been some resurgence in Scotland and England, with the amount of depth they’ve got, are capable of winning the World Cup if they get it right,” added Gatland.
“It is pretty exciting and while the All Blacks are still another level ahead, there isn’t much between the other teams. Although as a Kiwi I don’t want them to lose, I think the All Blacks losing was good for rugby.
“It was also good for rugby in terms of Argentina beating Australia as well. You don’t want one team continually dominating the game.”
Gatland’s 12-year reign will come to an end after the tournament next autumn. The 55-year-old New Zealander was appointed after the 2007 World Cup when Wales lost to Fiji and failed to make the quarter-finals.
Since then Wales have won three Six Nations titles and two Grand Slams, while also reaching the the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup – their best performance since the competition’s inaugural tournament in 1987 – and the quarter-finals four years later.
Gatland, who was formerly in charge of Ireland, Wasps and Waikato, has been head coach of the British and Irish Lions twice during his spell in Wales.
Both tours proved successful with the Lions winning in Australia in 2013 and sharing the 2017 series with world champions New Zealand.
He took lengthy sabbatical breaks before both tours, and he was criticised in Wales as many felt that his priority should have been with the national team throughout.
“Having a year away refreshed me and has been good for me personally. If I’d continued to do the Wales role (without a change of environment), I don’t think I’d have been here for that long.
“So it’s been a really good focus for me over my last two years, with the Lions and building into my final year and Japan.”
Gatland’s focus now turns to the autumn campaign and fixtures against Scotland, Australia, Tonga and South Africa.
But he accepts it is his final Six Nations campaign and the 2019 World Cup which will really shape his legacy.
Wales are in the same World Cup group as Australia, Georgia, Fiji and Uruguay and could meet England in the last eight.
“We want to finish as well as we possibly can and I can hopefully leave these shores with my head held high,” said Gatland, who has just returned from a fact-finding mission to typhoon-hit Japan.
“We would have liked to have won a bit more and probably done a bit better against southern hemisphere teams.
“But I think our record in the Six Nations over the 12 years and the win-loss ratio has been pretty outstanding from a Wales perspective – and the the way we’ve performed in World Cups has been pretty admirable as well.”