It has been a long week in Welsh rugby, and the hardest part has not even started. On Thursday the Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, spoke of wanting to “draw a line in the sand” before Saturdays match against England, which he admitted will be “absolutely massive” for both teams given that his side have already lost to Ireland and Scotland and Steve Borthwick’s still have to play Ireland and France.
However, even Gatland seemed to be struggling to move on. Hard as he tried, he could not disguise his irritation at the position he has been in this week, or his frustration about the state that Welsh rugby union is in. He stopped short of criticising his players, and reiterated his support for their cause, but did say that he felt they had been “a little bit impulsive” in pushing for a strike, and that they could have given the authorities “more warning” about what they wanted.
“It’s been a challenge, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “There could probably have been a period where they could have laid down their demands.” Gatland felt it all came to a head “pretty quickly”, which meant “there was a lot of pressure put on the union and the regions to get things resolved”.
He also revealed that the players had asked him to delay his team announcement, which was due on Tuesday, by 48 hours, to protect them from being put on the spot by the media during negotiations. That put Gatland in an awkward position because he has five England-based players in the squad, and he needed to notify their clubs as to whether they were going to be involved this weekend or not. “So that was something we had to consider and debate,” he said, with weary understatement. “There has been a certain amount of uncertainty.”
Now Gatland wants the players to make it good. “These are circumstances that have been brought on by ourselves, and we can only take responsibility ourselves,” he said. “I think we owe it to ourselves to give a performance.” And to the fans too, who have, in the large part, stood by the players. “There is no doubt that there has been a certain amount of sympathy, and you can certainly understand that. That’s why I’m so pleased the game has gone ahead. I would have hated to have seen that turn if the game hadn’t gone ahead.”
Gatland has made nine changes to the team that lost to Scotland, and has recalled four old hands – Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric and Leigh Halfpenny. Partly that is because he wants some experience in among the younger players. Owen Williams is making his first start at fly-half, and the hulking Mason Grady is in for his debut at centre, alongside the inexperienced Joe Hawkins. But he said himself that he needs them to deliver for him in the circumstances.
“Those experienced players have been through a lot of big situations, grand slams and World Cup semi-finals, so they’ve handled a huge amount of pressure, and this has definitely been a challenging week with all that has been going on.” It’s not that the conversations about the negotiations cut into their training on Tuesday, “the players have been great from that perspective. They have got their rugby heads and actually trained pretty well.” It’s more “that there has been so much distraction”.
Gatland has been around this game a long time, but even he says “you can’t measure the mental impact or the psychological impact” this will have, or predict “how that might affect them for the weekend”. He was clear that it has “taken a toll” on his captain, Ken Owens, who, he says, “looked 10 years younger this morning” because the negotiations were over. “Fingers crossed, when the magnitude of the game hits them they will be up for it on Saturday.” He needs them to be. So does Welsh rugby.
Gatland added: “Now that I reflect back on my first period here, a lot of these issues were going on, but the fact we were reasonably successful as a national side probably papered over the cracks a little bit. It was stopping the dam from bursting. But the dam has burst now.” He says he was not consulted about the new 25-cap rule, and is worried in particular about the possibility that more players are going to move outside the country. “As a national side we’re not being successful,” he said. “So the desire to play for Wales, and to play in Wales, potentially isn’t as strong as it was.”
There are problems here that beating England won’t fix. But it would be a start.