Gatland faces toughest test yet
August 12, 2011
Gatland is charged with bringing the William Webb Ellis Cup back to Wales © Getty Images
Wales boss Warren Gatland will call upon his previous experience of winning trophies in a bid to win a maiden World Cup for the country.
Five major trophies with Wasps - three Premiership titles and two Heineken Cup triumphs - plus a Six Nations Grand Slam during his first season in charge of Wales confirm an impressive pedigree. But Gatland's biggest challenge is just around the corner as Wales prepare their World Cup mission in New Zealand.
Apart from a third-place finish at the inaugural 1987 tournament and a battling quarter-final display against eventual winners England in Brisbane 16 years later, Wales have largely struggled on the global stage. It is 47-year-old New Zealander Gatland's job to try to change all that, albeit despite being drawn in a pool alongside reigning world champions South Africa and two countries - Samoa and Fiji - who have beaten Wales during previous World Cup tournaments.
The Springboks are first up in Wellington on September 11 and whatever the result, there will be little time for Wales to dust themselves down. Samoa are next in Hamilton, Gatland's birthplace, seven days later, and should Wales lose both those opening fixtures then any hope of securing a quarter-final spot will have disappeared way over the horizon.
Gatland, though, has left no stone unturned in terms of preparation, and Wales proved during their opening tournament warm-up fixture against England at Twickenham this month that they are ready, certainly with regard to the their physical fitness.
"The players are in superb shape physically," he said. "It is an area we have worked hard on because it is going to be key in the World Cup with Samoa and Fiji, as well as South Africa, in our World Cup group.
"What we have in Wales is players with a natural feel for the game, something that you cannot coach. And, if we can prove ourselves physically, it is a factor that can be decisive in a tight game."
To help put his players in prime physical shape, Gatland oversaw two demanding preparation camps at the Olympic sports village in Spala, Poland, where state-of-the-art training facilities were utilised to maximum effect. England (twice) and Argentina provide warm-up opposition then, nine days after Gatland names his 30-man World Cup squad on August 22, they head to New Zealand.
A glance at Wales' results over the last 20 Tests do not make for particularly encouraging reading, with just five victories - against Scotland (twice), Italy (twice) and Ireland - recorded during that period. But in their last two games against South Africa, Wales know they should have capitalised on healthy leads and laid down at least one psychological marker ahead of the countries' Wellington clash.
That they did not do it on either occasion means question marks remain over Wales' ability to put opponents away, and it is why they head to New Zealand as an unpredictable commodity.
On their day, Wales can compete with and possibly beat the best, but their challenge in New Zealand promises to be one of consistency as they strive to attain the minimum requirement of a quarter-final place.
"We played England in our first game in the Six Nations this year, and it was a tough, close Test match," recalled Gatland. "We showed some character to win the next three games, but then we performed poorly against France.
"For us, these (August) games against England are an opportunity for players to put their hands up for selection for the World Cup, but also to get some confidence. You have to be mindful of the group we are in at the World Cup. We know South Africa well, and also the type of game that Samoa and Fiji play as well.
"We are very mindful of the focus of the next month being on South Africa. This last week or so, the planning and preparation has been for England, but, apart from that, we've been thinking primarily about the first game in New Zealand."
With world stars in their ranks like Shane Williams, Jamie Roberts, James Hook, Mike Phillips and Sam Warburton, Wales will undoubtedly have moments to savour at the 2011 World Cup.
The big debate is whether Wales can produce enough of them to make this World Cup campaign a memorable one - or see it consigned to history as a frustrating failure.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.