It must be autumn. The leaves are falling, the bonfires have smouldered, and Wales are talking about developing rather than winning matches. Graham Thomas says after 10 years in charge, Warren Gatland should be offering a new tune.
Warren Gatland press conferences before the autumn Tests feel rather like Christmas Day messages from the Queen.
They are generally well-rehearsed after a little time away, often reflective, but always end with some form of upbeat declaration intended to provide warmth and comfort to the listener.
The Wales coach was in familiar vein on Thursday after announcing his team to take on Australia on Saturday in the opening game of a now traditional series of Tests – traditional in the sense that Wales lose the opener, then become progressively better and less rusty through the course of four matches.
In fact, Gatland was invited to become even more contemplative than usual, this being the 10th anniversary of his time in charge. He reeled off the triumphs of 2008, 2012 and 2013 (using the phrase ‘we’ to indicate the year Rob Howley was in charge) before sending out the goodwill vibes with the claim that Wales can win the next World Cup.
It’s like this every November. Expectations seem deliberately low. Talk of an urgent and overdue need to beat Australia – never mind New Zealand – is never expressed. It’s more about development – “creating more depth” and gently easing into the international season with a stretch and a yawn in late autumn sunshine – than it is about winning.
It’s as though these matches somehow don’t matter as much as the five games that follow in the Six Nations. They’re warm-ups, free hits. Gatland may be right about that in a financial sense and in World Cup season even global ranking points carry less significance.
But the truth, surely, is that a first victory over the All Blacks for 64 years would give Welsh rugby a far greater shot in the arm than beating England and France in three months’ time. It would be transformative, inspiring across the generations, and an entirely new experience for anyone not of pensionable age.
It would be a sporting earthquake, something almost as loud and powerful as the march to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 after Chris Coleman’s side had beaten Belgium last summer.
The same might even be said about a first victory over the Wallabies since 2008. It would feel fresh, exciting, more invigorating, perhaps, than a win over a still scratchy French side on the final day of this year’s Six Nations, unless Wales happen to be going for a Grand Slam.
Part of Gatland’s reticence to bang the drum and blow his trumpet in November is probably his own record against the big three southern hemisphere nations. It’s no worse than any of the other Wales coaches of the professional era, but that doesn’t hide it from being awful.
Inclusive of the periods when Howley has stepped up to take the reins, Gatland’s overall win percentage across his 10 years in charge is 52.10%. That drops to 8.57% against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Saturday’s game will be his 36th against the trio with just three victories attained so far – two against the Springboks (2016 and 2014) and that solitary win over the Wallabies.
Gatland – like most European national coaches – likes to stress the touring teams’ advantages at this time of the year.
“We are playing a team that has had eight games together in the last couple of months,” he says.
“We are going in cold against a team that has had eight games and gone from being beaten by 50 points by the All Blacks to beating the All Blacks in Brisbane two games ago. So, that’s the improvement they’ve had with that time together.
“We have improved significantly as a squad when we have had time together, and we know that is what will happen over the next two years.”
But this is Gatland’s second decade as coach and he still has a core of experience within the team despite some of the new faces. Is it really too much to expect players who know each other’s game so well to click into a familiar groove?
Back in June, the All Blacks got together for their first match for seven months. There was not much talk about development or about a gradual improving over the next four games. It was the here and now that mattered and they beat Samoa 78-0, before seeing off the Lions 30-15 a week later.
The previous year, the All Blacks were playing their first match for eight months when Wales arrived on tour. Gatland’s team had been together for three months during the Six Nations, just two months before. The All Blacks won 39-21. No rust. No fuss.
Gatland is a highly successful coach and some of the criticism that has come his way in recent weeks since the Lions tour has been based on flimsy evidence or else felt like the settling of old scores.
But for someone who has been in the job for 10 years he has also been a master of the long distance signpost. The long-term is always more important to him than the present, in a way that simply would not be tolerated in some other sports.
He insisted: “It’s a process over the next two years. We know when we have been together in World Cup campaigns just how competitive we have been.
“We should have made the final of the World Cup in 2011. We were decimated by injuries in 2015, but we were five minute away from beating SA in a quarter-final.
“I just believe this team is capable of winning the World Cup, given their experience and age-profile in two years’ time. That is why we are trying to expose some younger players at the moment.”
The message is clear. Even though Wales are at home, that the Aussies have only this week arrived from Japan and spent weeks criss-crossing the planet, don’t get your hopes up.
Expect much talk of valuable experience for players like Owen Williams, Leon Brown and Sam Cross. Expect reference to “learning lessons” about “game management”. Perhaps, expect a mention of “small margins” if the scoreline is close, as it has been in some recent matches.
Just don’t expect the win.