Second in the NatWest Six Nations, unbeaten on tour for the second successive summer, and now third in the World Rugby rankings – things are certainly starting to look up for Wales and Warren Gatland as his reign as head coach enter its final, critical phase.
Having passed 100 matches in charge of the Welsh team during the Six Nations, Gatland will notch his 150th Test as an international head coach in the opening game of the autumn series against Scotland. That will also be his chance to see if he can finally put one over on the Aussies, who are in the same World Cup pool in Japan next year.
Given that he went on tour without 2017 British & Irish Lions Sam Warburton, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Dan Biggar, Rhys Webb, Jonathan Davies and Justin Tipuric, and also had to leave out injured players like Aaron Shingler, Jake Ball and Scott Baldwin, he was able to work with a number of less experienced players who now have one eye on selection for next year’s World Cup.
“The biggest advantage that big nations have, a team like the All Blacks, is that when they put that jersey on they know there are four or five guys waiting for an opportunity if they mess up,” said the Wales coach.
“Sometimes, in smaller nations, you get comfortable and complacent – that happens when you don’t have a huge amount of depth. What’s pleasing is that now we’ve created something where there isn’t any complacency.
“There are so many players at the moment who have helped create depth and players know that when they take the field it could be their last opportunity in a Welsh jersey and they’ll want to make the most of it.
“That, to me, is the most pleasing aspect of this tour. We’ve now got a group of guys sitting at home who realise their positions aren’t guaranteed – they’re going to have to work hard. The players that have been on this tour have really put their hands up and put a mark in the sand.”
There will certainly be a few big name players sitting a little less easily at home after watching the heroics of recent weeks. No doubt they will be adding a few little extras to their training this summer as they prepare to fight for the chance to add to their cap collections.
“We’re very pleased with the tour as a whole because we achieved all of our goals. I think we’re up to third in the world, which is an even bigger bonus as well,” said Gatland.
“The players demonstrated the hunger and desire we are looking for to want to wear the jersey. I haven’t seen a group of players this hungry for a while in the way that they’ve prepared and trained – it’s a great position for us to be in.
“A lot of people were sceptical about the tour, and they’d written us off, but we’ve achieved a huge amount. We made a lot of changes after 2010, brought all the guys in for the 2011 World Cup and this group of players have been outstanding both on and off the field.
“We spoke last weekend about expecting a backlash from the Pumas, but it wasn’t about them. The whole tour was about us, about taking the opportunity, developing and we stepped up again.
“What’s pleasing is that the second Test performance was better than the previous week. I don’t know if we’re missing anyone at the moment!”
Other than that, the tour demonstrated that Welsh rugby is in a good place at the moment. The win in Washington made it three wins in a row over the Springboks, the 2-0 triumph in Argentina was the first series win in Argentina since 1999 and the successful summer tour came on top of a second place finish in the Six Nations.
“I think we’re in a good place at the moment, particularly over the last 12 to 18 months. The planning that’s gone into building to the World Cup, and creating more depth, really goes back to 2016 when we went to play three Tests in New Zealand,” added Gatland.
“We played pretty well in the first couple, we had the game against the Chiefs and got significantly beaten, but that was all part of the long term plan in terms of developing strength in depth. We feel like we’ve achieved that.
“The plan goes ahead and November will be a different sort of campaign. We’ll be using that as a conditioning campaign, very much as a sort of World Cup pre-season.
“Everything will be planned for the start of the World Cup. We’re on track and we’ve stuck to what we said we were going to do.”