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He’s The Daddy . . . Warren Gatland Gets Ready For World Cup No. 5

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From Hamish Stuart in Bordeaux

When it comes to the Rugby World Cup, nobody knows it better than Warren Gatland.

The Wales head coach has plenty to look forward to next month, with his 60th birthday to celebrate as well as a fifth trip to rugby’s showpiece event.

He may have been on the end of his first 50-point mauling in charge of Wales in what was his 133rd game in charge against the world champion Springboks in his side’s final pre-France warm-up game.

But it is what happens over the next two months that will matter most to him.

Games 134-137 have been uppermost in his mind since he returned to take up the coaching reigns for a second term at the start of the year – Fiji, Portugal, Australia and Georgia await in Pool C for Wales at the 10th Rugby World Cup.

No head coach in world rugby knows the tournament better than the man who will celebrate his 60th birthday on 17 September.

The perfect birthday present for him would be a trip to another knock-out stage at the World Cup in France.

This will be his fourth successive campaign with Wales, and he has twice taken his team to the semi-final stage. In 2015, his side were knocked out in the quarter finals by today’s opponents, South Africa.

It was the Springboks who ended the dream in Japan four years ago, when a Handre Pollard penalty in the final five minutes of a nerve-jangling semi-final earned the eventual world champions a 19-16 victory.

In 2011, it had been the French who had denied Gatland’s Welsh battlers, 9-8, in Auckland in a game in which the Wales skipper Sam Warburton saw red for a dangerous tackle.

But his World Cup journey goes back even further to the tournament hosted by Wales in 1999, when he was in charge of Ireland. On that occasion his side bowed out to Argentina in the quarter-final play-offs.

The opening game next month against the Fijians in Bordeaux will be Gatland’s 24th World Cup game as a head coach at his fifth tournament.

For Pool C rival Eddie Jones, back in charge of Australia, it will be his 19th game as head coach at their tournament when the Wallabies kick-off against Georgia in Paris.

That will take him level with the next best performer to Gatland, ex-Wales and New Zealand coach Steve Hansen.

“I’ve always enjoyed being involved in World Cup campaigns because you get a good period of preparation time with the squad. You don’t normally get that, and it means you can work on the finer detail,” said Gatland.

“We like to think we’ve performed pretty well in previous tournaments. We’ve been pretty unlucky not to reach one or two finals.

“A couple of weeks ago we were written off, and there will still be some people out there who won’t fancy our chances in France.

“But we are a team who, if we can put in some performances and gain some confidence, will just keep on building.

“That’s what I’m hoping will happen and I think we can go deep into this World Cup. Preparations have gone well, and we are really pleased with the whole squad.

“Everyone is fit. We have had a few niggles in the last couple of weeks and there were a few players who couldn’t take a full part because of a few bumps, but they have all been re-habbed and they are fit – it’s a positive place for us to be in,” said Gatland.

“There has been a lot of chat about our group. It is about taking one game at a time and being ready to go on Sunday.

“Getting a good start always helps to have a good tournament and we’re not thinking past Sunday.
“We want to put ourselves in contention for the quarter finals and then take it from there.

“We’ve worked incredibly hard over the last few months and we’ve been preparing well for Fiji. We’ve had some good clarity in what we want to achieve, we’ve had a good look at them, and the players look sharp.”

The Fijians have come into the tournament on the back of five warm-up games.

They won the Pacific Rim tournament, beating Tonga, Samoa and Japan, gave France a few scares in Paris and then beat England at Twickenham.

Australia and Georgia kick-off the Pool C fixtures in Paris on Saturday night, while minnows Portugal, who have qualified for the first time in 16 years, are sitting out the opening round before they face Wales in Nice next week.

“I think we are in a good place, the boys are happy, and it is a great environment to be in with players getting on with each other. We are trying to get a balance between the hard work and having a few laughs,” said Gatland.

“The boys have formed some committees, all the players did their own personal presentations to the group, which were fantastic. Then we have joke of the day and thought for the day, and some video stuff to lighten the mood at the start of team meetings. That has been really positive.

“When they switch off it about enjoying each other’s company and enjoying being in France. We’re really happy with how things have been since we arrived and they are enjoying soaking up the atmosphere.”

“Apart from the few players who have had injuries, everyone has had an opportunity. There is a good atmosphere, and we are building some real depth in the team.

“What pleased me most about the first couple of games was the level of physicality we brought and the way we defended. There are still things to work on, and we need to become much more accurate.”

The 20-9 home win over England in the opening game of the Vodafone Summer Series certainly opened the eyes of everyone to the possibilities within this new group of players.

The narrow, last gasp loss at Twickenham was a disappointment in the end, but once again showed the potential of the whole squad.

“We were good in the first game against England and the ball in play time was 39 minutes. It slowed down significantly at Twickenham, with only 30 minutes ball in play,” added Gatland.

“We want to play with tempo and keep the ball on the park. We want to keep moving teams around. We weren’t accurate enough or good enough to do that in the second game against England.”

Gatland’s World Cup journey began at Lansdowne Road on 2 October 1999 when Ireland faced the USA.

Only 30,000 fans turned up to watch his side spank the Eagles, with Keith Wood scoring four of the seven tries in a 58-3 win.

Eight days later a 23-3 defeat to the Wallabies, who would go on to win the title, put the skids under Irish progress.

The Romanians were beaten 44-14, but second place in the pool meant a trip to Lens to face Argentina in the quarter-final play offs.

Despite 24 points from the boot of David Humphreys, Ireland crashed out 28-24 – the one and only time a Gatland side has failed to reach the quarter-finals.

With Wales in 2011 he reached the semi-finals, where Alain Rolland’s decision to dismiss sipper Sam Warburton for a tip tackle on Vincent Clerc, cost Wales a place int he final.

They were beaten 9-8 by France, but should have won even with 14 men.

In 2015, a win over host nation England at Twickenham cost them at quarter-final, and Stuart Lancaster his job as coach, but the Springboks were too strong in the last eight.

Four years ago in Japan, Wales once again reached the semi-finals, where a late, late penalty from Handre Pollard sent the South Africans into the final.

Warren Gatland’s Opening World Cup Match
Saturday, 2 October, 1999 – Pool E, Lansdowne Road


Ireland: Conor O’Shea; Justin Bishop, Brian O’Driscoll, Kevin Maggs (Jonathan Bell 72), Matthew Mostyn; David Humphreys (Eric Elwood 68), Tom Tierney (Brian O’Meara 77); Peter Clohessy (Justin Fitzpatrick 68), Keith Wood (Ros Nesdale 77), Paul Wallace, Paddy Johns (76), Jeremy Davidson (Malcolm O’Kelly 41), Trevor Brennan (Eric Miller 59), Andy Ward, Dion O’Cuinneagain (captain)
YC: Johns 76
Scorers: Tries: Wood 4, O’Driscoll, Bishop, Pen Try; Cons: Humphreys 4, Elwood 2; Pens: Humphreys 2

USA: Kurt Shuman; Vaea Anitoni, Juan Grobler, Tomasi Takau (Mark Scharrenberg 75), Brian Hightower; Mark Williams (David Niu 49), Kevin Dalzell (60); George Sucher, Tom Billups (Kirk Khasigian 77), Ray Lehner, Luke Gross, Alec Parker (76), Dave Hodges (Shaun Paga 65), Richard Tardits (Fifita Mounga 52) Dan Lyle (captain)
YC: Lyle 60, Gross 76
Scorer: Try: Dalzell; Pen: Dalzell
Referee: Joel Dume (France)

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