Warren Gatland hopes to ‘draw a line’ under troubled week for Wales

  • Coach says players were ‘a bit impulsive’ in threatening strike
  • Wales make nine changes for Six Nations match against England

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.

Alun Wyn Jones during training
Alun Wyn Jones is one of the Wales old guard returning against England. Photograph: Ben Evans/Huw Evans/Shutterstock

“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.

15 Feb: Take it or leave it deal
The Welsh Rugby Union and the regions insist there is “no room for manoeuvre” on the budget for player contracts in Wales. The take-or-leave-it deal which has to be signed by 28 February – three days after facing England in Cardiff – would see lower wages all round and bonuses introduced into contracts for the first time.  

16 Feb: Players have ‘had enough’
The Welsh Rugby Players’ Association say that “players have had enough” amid the ongoing uncertainty caused by Welsh rugby’s professional contracts freeze and threaten to strike. “Until the long-form agreement is signed and active, no players’ futures are guaranteed.”

16 Feb: Gatland against strike
Later that day, Wales head coach Warren Gatland says he would not back his players if they decided to strike instead of lining up against England in the Six Nations even though his former captain Alun Wyn Jones stresses a strike would be “the very last option”. 

18 Feb: ‘I’m confident they’ll play’
Gatland says he is confident that the Test against England will go ahead after talks over the weekend tried to resolve the deadlock. “I expect the game is going to be played. I have seen these sort of things happen in the past and I am confident the game will go ahead,” the New Zealander says. “It hasn’t been the easiest few weeks, but sometimes that focuses the mind and gives you the resolve to focus on the job at hand.”

19 Feb: Coach calls for sense
Gatland urges Welsh rugby’s warring factions to come together and resolve the dispute. “We’ve got to take away our parochialism and take away the self-interest. I’ve always been a big advocate of this. Let’s make the best decisions for the game.” 

19 Feb: ‘Stress and discomfort’
Professional Rugby Board chair Malcom Wall apologises to Welsh players for the “stress and real discomfort” caused by the contract dispute. “I’m genuinely upset and feel very personally that I’ve not done what I should have done as chair of the PRB in getting us to the place we want to be with this long-term funding agreement.”

21 Feb: Delay in naming squad
Gatland delays naming his team. He had been due to announce the starting line-up at midday ahead of talks due to take place the next day, deadline for the England game.

22 Feb: Strike threat called off
Players, WRU and PRB reach agreement that sees England match go ahead

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.


Andy Bull

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Wales’ Warren Gatland raises worries about Netflix’s Six Nations documentary
The Wales head coach said language is used in the rugby environment that ‘isn’t always appropriate’ and is concerned about lack of input into the show’s final edit

Andy Bull

28, Jan, 2023 @6:00 PM

Article image
The return of Gatland: can the sequel match the blockbuster original?
Wales’s returning head coach has put his faith in old hands and in-form players, just as he did in 2008. It worked then, but will it again?

Andy Bull

03, Feb, 2023 @3:49 PM

Article image
Catastrophe averted – but now the pressure is on Wales to show their fire | Robert Kitson
After a week of brinkmanship, a mental challenge awaits the two teams in Cardiff as much as a physical one

Robert Kitson

24, Feb, 2023 @8:00 PM

Article image
England’s Kyle Sinckler thankful for ‘pivotal’ Six Nations win over Wales
Prop was traumatised by England’s 2019 Cardiff defeat but says Saturday’s success was significant ‘not only in my career but my life’

Robert Kitson

26, Feb, 2023 @10:00 PM

Article image
England’s Jamie George backs Wales players but is wary of bounce effect
Hooker has ‘huge sympathy’ for Six Nations rivals yet is convinced they will charge out with renewed spirit after a fraught week

Robert Kitson

23, Feb, 2023 @10:00 PM

Article image
Six Nations 2023 team-by-team review: Ireland dominate as Wales hit low ebb
Farrell’s side were brutally efficient in their grand slam triumph, but resurgent France are ticking along nicely in the background

Gerard Meagher

19, Mar, 2023 @5:00 PM

Article image
Warren Gatland warns Wales to stay grounded or face slip-up in Scotland
The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, said after Saturday’s 21-13 win: ‘Our biggest challenge is not to be happy with beating England’

Paul Rees in Cardiff

24, Feb, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
History beckons for Ireland at Rugby World Cup after grand slam glory | Robert Kitson
Andy Farrell’s men are deservedly favourites for France while England must learn quickly from their disappointing Six Nations

Robert Kitson

19, Mar, 2023 @10:00 PM

Article image
Warren Gatland calls England’s Kyle Sinckler an ‘emotional timebomb’
Wales coach Warren Gatland has described England’s Kyle Sinckler as an ‘emotional timebomb’ and said Eddie Jones’s side delaying their journey to Cardiff until Friday is a ‘significant mistake’

Gerard Meagher

21, Feb, 2019 @10:00 PM

Article image
Gatland would not support Wales players if they strike for England fixture
The Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, said he would not support his players if they decided to strike before their Six Nations match with England

Luke McLaughlin

16, Feb, 2023 @1:41 PM