Three years and one month since his last match in charge, Warren Gatland has returned to his old job as the head coach of Wales. The Welsh Rugby Union sacked the man who took over from him, Wayne Pivac, on Monday, so they could bring Gatland back from New Zealand on a four-year deal as the head coach through to the 2027 World Cup in Australia.
Wales won 13 matches out of 34 under Pivac, a run that ended with recent home defeats against Georgia and Australia in the autumn series. In a statement released by the WRU, Pivac said he was “sad to stand down” but conceded his team’s results had been “inconsistent”.
It was only last year that Wales won the Six Nations, while this summer they won an away Test against South Africa for the first time in their history when they beat the Springboks 13-12 in Bloemfontein. Despite that, recent results have led to them dropping to ninth in the world rankings.
“This is one of the toughest calls to make in sport, but the review process has reached its conclusion and we have acted quickly and efficiently in the very best interests of our national team,” the WRU’s chief executive, Steve Phillips, said. “Ultimately we are in the results business and we have agreed with Wayne that the current trajectory for Wales is not where we want it to be.”
So back to Gatland it is. His first term as Wales’s coach lasted 12 years and 124 Tests, in which time the team won three grand slams, as well as another Six Nations title, and finished fourth at the 2011 and 2019 World Cups. When he left the job, after a 40-17 defeat against New Zealand in the third-place playoff at the 2019 tournament, he spoke about how he hoped the team would “continue to build on what we have achieved” and said “the opportunity for the next group is to come in and improve on what we have created”. He also said “it would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums”, which is the course they have been on recently.
Gatland had spent the past three years coaching the Chiefs in Super Rugby, with a sabbatical when he led the British & Irish Lions to South Africa last year. He said he was “very much looking forward” to returning to Wales. “This is an opportunity to achieve something with a talented group of players in a country so passionate about rugby. A country which made my family and I so welcome, when we first arrived there 15 years ago, and all the time we were there.”
He will find that the playing group is much the same as it was when he left, and so are many of the back room staff. A lot of the bigger problems facing the game in Wales will feel pretty familiar, too.
Phillips promised the appointment “is no quick fix, nor sticking plaster” but “part of our long-term planning for the game in Wales”. The four regions are in dispute with the WRU about finances, and are currently blocked from signing new recruits and renewing existing contracts.
“There will be new challenges as there always is with a change in head coach,” said Gatland, “but for me the environment, the players and their families will always come first. We must prepare to the best of our ability in the time available. We will value and respect each other, we will work hard and, if we get this right together, performances and results will follow.”
The move will also have ramifications for the Rugby Football Union, which is currently running its own review into the team performance under Eddie Jones. Gatland had been one of the leading contenders to take over from Jones.