Wales need to find their 'A' game
March 2, 2010
Who can succeed Warren Gatland as Wales coach? © Getty Images
'Taxi for Mr.Gatland ?' asked another writer at half-time during the French match as we contemplated yet another huge Welsh deficit.
Unless one of the sanest Welsh scribes had suddenly lost his mind, it was meant as a joke. Anyone with the merest grasp of recent history will know that is the last direction in which Wales should be looking. Even if this was a night on which - insofar as anything is clear from the Millennium Stadium's apology for a press box - it was rapidly evident that boxer Nathan Cleverly, presented beforehand, would be the only 2010 European champion from Wales on view, Gatland remains hugely in credit.
It would admittedly be helpful if he could disabuse his squad of their apparent belief that it is unsporting to start playing before the opposition have had a chance to pile up a few points. And you might hope that a former hooker would have some idea what to do about the chronic ineptitude of the Welsh line-out on the big throws, although given that this weakness seems to been around longer than most of his squad have been alive, Gatland is no more to blame than most of his predecessors.
But only in the event of that taxi, or maybe a runaway golf cart, running down Gatland should the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) even think about making a change at this point. That way lies madness, failure and humiliation by a south sea island - and Wales have two to reckon with in New Zealand next year.
What they might give some thought to is who eventually follows him. When he arrived in late 2007, Gatland indicated that he intended to stay until the 2011 World Cup, but probably no longer. He aimed to leave Wales in better shape than he found it, something he is well on the way to doing, rather than seizing the job for life.
It is hard to imagine that much has happened to change his mind. So it looks as though, whatever happens over the next 18 months or so, Wales will be seeking a new coach towards the end of 2011. This may be one way in which Welsh rugby has not necessarily progressed since 2004.
Then the WRU were able to shortlist two homegrown coaches, Mike Ruddock and Gareth Jenkins, knowing that either had the skills, experience and credibility needed to do the job. OK, so Jenkins eventual term in office was not a happy one, but nobody would realistically have suggested beforehand that he was not up to it. His record with Llanelli was hugely impressive and he had international experience both as deputy to Alan Davies in the early 1990s and with the Lions.
It is a fair assumption that the WRU would prefer a Welsh coach. There's no need to go all fundamentalist about it, but all other things being equal that's a natural preference. There are a number of individuals who might make decent international coaches. The trouble is that the opportunities to build up the all-round skills Jenkins and Ruddock had have become rather limited.
The identikit requirements are experience of coaching successfully at international level, a record of being an effective maker of final decisions as a chief coach or director of rugby and proven ability to turn teams into something greater than the sum of its parts.
Neither Rob Howley nor Robin McBryde, members of Gatland's current Wales coaching team, has any real record as a chief. Among the franchise bosses Paul Turner appears to have succeeded to Lyn Jones's role as 'interesting, but non- papabile '. Sean Holley was let down by his bosses, landed with responsibility without power, during his part-season in charge of the Ospreys, but did not do enough to dissuade them from an evident view that he is still a number two rather than a chief. Nigel Davies has been in the national set-up, as deputy to Jenkins, but his Scarlets have yet to convince while Dai Young's Blues have taken a step back after doing so well last year.
The two Welsh chiefs in the English Premiership - Ruddock and Kingsley Jones - are locked in a relegation battle. If Wales want someone who can win a World Cup there is Sevens coach Paul John, who has the added charm of being potentially the first man to follow his father - Dennis, caretaker on a particularly painful tour of South Africa - in the job. Yet he's no real record as a chief in 15s yet. Elsewhere in the WRU's coaching structure is Academy boss Phil Davies, who keeps his hand in with the Under-20s and was of course the runner-up when Jenkins was appointed.
They're all impressive people and there's nothing to say that any of them might not prosper at top level. Ruddock would presumably not want to work for the WRU again - and you can't blame him. So Young and Phil Davies look the likeliest runners, with Nigel Davies a contender should the Scarlets show a serious improvement next season. That none quite has a fully convincing resume suggests what is missing might be a matter of structure rather than personal limitations. Which brings me back, with no apology, to a theme touched on before in this column.
Scott Quinnell became the latest commentator to call for the reintroduction of a Wales 'A' team this week, arguing that without it Wales miss a necessary step in player development. He's right, and might have added that coach development is also lost. It was, after all, success with Wales 'A' that underpinned the credibility of Ruddock - the one truly successful home-grown coach of the last 20 years. Restore that missing link, put one of brightest coaching prospects in charge of players who should be on the point of breaking into the senior side, and we might get back to having a better idea who our potential international coaches are.