WILL WE BE BIG IN JAPAN?

"This is an increasingly settled group of players" 

This time next year it will all be over. We don’t know how it will end, but end it will.
For the first time since the dark days following the humiliating exit from the 2007 World Cup, there will be big changes afoot at the helm of the Wales rugby team. Why is that important? Because for Warren Gatland and his coaching team the countdown to the end of their 12-year tenures is well and truly under way.

A dozen years is a long time in anyone’s book. It’s the longest any head coach has spent in charge of Wales. To put it into some sort of context 2007 was the year Tony Blair ceded the position of Prime Minister to Gordon Brown, the new Wembley Stadium opened, the final instalment in the Harry Potter book series was released, while Andrew Flintoff was involved in the infamous ‘Fredalo’ incident during England’s nightmare Cricket World Cup campaign.
Welsh rugby has known nothing other than Gatland, Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley and Robin McBryde in the intervening period.

There are a generation of young Welsh fans who will not be able to remember watching the national team under the guidance of anyone other than Gatland. Some players have seen their Test careers start and end under the regime, none more notable than former skipper Sam Warburton who has sadly been forced into early retirement by injury. There are those who will rejoice at the chance for a fresh start under Pivac, who has enjoyed considerable success developing an exciting all-court game with the Scarlets, and the change from an increasingly taciturn Gatland.

Many felt the Kiwi’s time should have been up after the last World Cup. But there are others who will rue the departure of a man who led Wales to a period of success not experienced since the halcyon days of the 1970s. There is little grey area, you like Gatland or you do not.

Ultimately, when it comes down to it, there is respect rather than outright admiration for what he has achieved - including a Lions success in Australia and a drawn series against the mighty All Blacks. Gatland is liked not loved. He might not like to admit it but the former Ireland coach is mindful of that fact, and knows the 12 months ahead could define his legacy in this land.

“ There is a certain amount of pressure. The last thing I want is for Wales to have a poor Six Nations and a poor World Cup because we have put in a huge amount of work over the last 12 years,” he said.

“I’m bricking myself about the next year because I want it to be a good one.

“I am focused on doing the best job I can having loved my period in Wales.

“It is time to move on and I want to leave these shores with my head held high. That makes the next 12 months pretty important, not so much this autumn and the World Cup warm-ups, but the Six Nations and the World Cup, the competitions we are judged on.”

History has shown Gatland’s ability to get Wales to peak when the global showpiece comes around every four years. They were heartbreakingly close to a place in the final in 2011, and were a defensive lapse away from the semi- finals despite being decimated by injuries in 2015.

They also came into the new season on the back of a highly encouraging summer which included victories over South Africa and Argentina, there is a sense of momentum behind Wales with a more expansive game plan on the table.

Pleasingly, that progress has continued into the current campaign and a first autumn clean sweep just adds to the sense that Wales are bubbling along nicely as the global jamboree in Japan looms ever larger on the horizon.

Claiming the scalp of Australia - pool opponents at the World Cup - after a run of 13-straight defeats was huge psychologically and they won with masses to spare against Tonga, and with relative comfort against Scotland and South Africa.

“We’ve got a good group of players that the Welsh public should be really proud of,” Gatland said in reflecting on a satisfying November.

“The way they conduct themselves, prepare and train. They’ve been outstanding.

“I’ve been very proud of them but we‘re not getting too carried away.

“ There will be the keyboard warriors out there criticising me, Rob Howley or Robin McBryde - they take a lot of crap from people.

“We just keep our head down, work hard and start thinking about the Six Nations.

I"It's my last 12 months and I'd like to finish on a high and for these guys to do as well as they possibly can and leave Welsh rugby in a good place."

""The goal will always be to win every game we play"

While Wales suffered injuries to the likes of Taulaupe Faletau, James Davies and Scott Williams, the autumn underlined a pleasing depth and solidity to the 36-man party by Gatland.

In the past the loss of players of that ilk would have caused a crisis, instead Wales were able to deal with the absentees with men of the calibre of Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric and Jonathan Davies filling the void. A number of nations would relish options of that nature. There is considerable strength in the front row, the back-row and the back three and this is an increasingly settled group of players. There is an embarrassment of riches.

Gatland's task in selecting his 31-man World Cup squad in not going to be how he fills out the positions with sufficient quality, it is more who on earth does he leave out?

But there has still been room for the introduction of new faces, with Leicester's Jonah Holmes and Ospreys man Luke Morgan the surprise names in the autumn squad. Morgan has international experience from the World Sevens circuit, where he is Wales' top scorer. He had been brought back in the 15-man game this season, and he already has four tries in just six appearances at the time of writing.

At the age of 26 his full international call has come later than is usual, and he earned his first cap in the victory over Scotland.

"I think this autumn is about some rotation of the squad and giving players an opportunity." added Gatland. 

"We've taken the chance to look at a few new faces in the camp. We have had a pretty settled group but it does not mean players cannot force their way into things and the guys who have been given an extra opportunity will be all the better for the experience. 

"Luke and Jonah have impressed us, they have things to work on as we do as a team but we are in a good place right now."

Morgan and Holmes are men at the start of their Wales careers, selected by a man nearing the end of his. But the common goal is the same, to make sure Wales make their mark when the William Webb Ellis Trophy is up for grabs this time next year and a legacy is on the line.