Hard reign: Warren Gatland must now switch back to his rule over the Wales team. Pic: Getty Images.
There should be a deserved swagger in his stride when Warren Gatland returns to his day job, says Robin Davey. But the flexibility he showed in New Zealand, now needs to be extended to Wales.
Warren Gatland will return to Wales if not exactly a conquering hero after his exploits with the Lions in New Zealand, then with his reputation enhanced before he has to face up to a whole series of problems.
This time they’re not so much the difficult kind for a change, but more down to selection and style.
For in his role as Lions coach Gatland discovered – or at least implemented – a way of playing which seemed beyond him when he was in charge of Wales.
In the thrilling drawn series against the All Blacks, Gatland completely cast aside the style of play which has so restricted national teams under his command –the type of stuff that led to accusations it was all head down, crash through the middle repetition, with little intent on playing with any width. It was a style which earned the nickname of Warrenball.
Gatland always denied it even existed and Rob Howley, his assistant with Wales and the Lions, claimed he had no idea what Warrenball was.
Whether that’s right or wrong, it involved, in the main, Jamie Roberts bulldozing his way through the middle to set up second phase ball. Even when Roberts wasn’t involved last season, his replacement, Scott Williams, was asked to play in a similar way. There appeared to be no Plan B.
Fast forward from the Six Nations to the Lions and Gatland ditched that way of playing by operating with two tens in midfield – Johnny Sexton and Owen Farrell – and with an exciting runner at full-back in Liam Williams.
The more fluid style paid huge dividends and contributed to the Lions drawing the series with the All Blacks when many predicted they would be whitewashed.
Following a break, Gatland will plot the way ahead for Wales in the autumn internationals as the build-up to the 2019 World Cup continues.
Surely, he won’t revert to type – or the type which has so categorised Wales under his tutelage – after what he achieved with the Lions.
Adaptation will involve finding a No.10 who is a fluent passer of the ball, to slot in at 12 to provide width, get the ball moving, and offer more of a threat.
At this stage it’s difficult to see who that would be, but maybe a Sam Davies outside Dan Biggar, who was a roaring success on the Lions tour but just unable to oust either Sexton or Farrell for the Tests.
And that approach would also involve Gatland switching Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams, if Halfpenny makes the side at all.
Saracens-bound Williams will surely occupy the full-back slot for Wales going forward after his success with the Lions as an adventurous, counter-attacking threat.
That would involve moving Halfpenny back to the wing or possibly even to the bench. His main asset is his place kicking prowess, but with Biggar almost as successful and with players like Steff Evans bursting to join George North as Welsh wings, Halfpenny may suddenly find himself out of the side. That would be quite a turnaround.
And then there is the back row and what to do about it. Taulupe Faletau suffered a rare injury last season and when he was fit again couldn’t make the side, remaining on the bench with a back three of Sam Warburton, Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric favoured by interim coach Howley.
But since then Faletau has been outstanding with the Lions, a Test regular and called the best player in the UK by Jonathan Davies on social media.
It therefore seems inconceivable that he will be sidelined again when the autumn series comes around. And much the same can be said for Warburton, who former World Cup winning coach Clive Woodward called one of the best Lions captains ever.
Tipuric was the unfortunate victim of being among a plethora of terrific back row talent on the Lions tour and couldn’t make the Test side, but he could be considered unlucky after a number of typical all-action performances.
And Moriarty started the tour with a bang in the opening tour game only to suffer more shoulder problems which ended his involvement abruptly.
So, try picking a back row trio out of Moriarty, Faletau, Warburton and Tipuric. That’s one heck of a task for Gatland, a huge problem but for once, one of the better kind.
And, finally, there is the choice of captain. By general concensus Warburton was some way below his best last season and he himself felt he would be better served by stepping away from the role which was handed to Alun Wyn Jones instead.
It was probably touch and go who would do the job for the Lions, but Gatland fell back on his trusted lieutenant, Warburton, who had made such a success of the Lions captaincy in Australia four years earlier.
But even then it wasn’t clear-cut, for Warburton suffered an ankle injury early in the tour and wasn’t fit enough to make the side for the opening Test. The job was given to Irishman Peter O’Mahony rather than AWJ.
But Gatland reinstated Warburton for the second Test which the Lions gloriously won and for the third and final one, an absolute thriller which went down to the wire and ended in a draw, to square the series as a whole.
Warburton earned widespread praise, not least from New Zealanders, for the way he captained the Lions in those two Tests. So, although Jones is also a fine leader who extended his run of successive Tests for the Lions to nine on three tours, Warburton is a racing certainty to regain the role for Wales come the autumn.
But having said that, Warburton does tend to be injury prone so Gatland could well be handed a similar issue to the one he has faced before concerning the captaincy when the autumn series arrives.
But, for once, these all appear to be ‘problems’ which offer a more positive kind of challenge. All it needs now is for Gatland to keep his Lions hat on and respond in a positive way.
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