Sustained success as an international rugby coach is incredibly rare. It requires vision but also an ability to continually reinvent a game plan.
After 12 years in charge of Wales, it is therefore fitting that Warren Gatland signs off against New Zealand and Steve Hansen in third-place play-off at the World Cup.
Between them they have been in charge of their respective teams for two decades, a lifetime in coaching terms where most contracts run for a four-year World Cup cycle.
In a dozen years at the helm, Gatland has overseen three Grand Slams with three different sets of players – albeit right-hand man Alun Wyn Jones has been there for them all. Jones is unquestionably one of the players Gatland refers to when he talks about the fortune of coaching this team for so long.
He said: “The players I have worked with, I have had about three squads over that period, and I have worked with some outstanding individuals and some players I have been very lucky to coach.
“The biggest thing I am proud of is that we have earned respect from the rest of the world in terms of what we have achieved in the last 12 years.”
Gatland has certainly earned respect and a fair bit of silverware along the way.
THE PERFECT START
Considering where Wales stood when Gatland took over, a trip to Twickenham, where they had not won for two decades, seemed like a daunting place to kick off his reign.
After an hour Wales trailed 19-6, but then in the space of six minutes, they turned the game on its head. James Hook kicked a penalty, Lee Byrne and Mike Phillips got two converted tries in three minutes and Gatland was off to a dream start.
As is often the way, Wales carried that momentum all the way to an unlikely Grand Slam, knocking off Scotland, Italy and then after a real battle, Ireland.
They welcomed France to Cardiff for the decider, with Les Bleus still in the hunt for the title, if not the Slam. Wales never gave them a sniff, and Shane and Martyn Williams each crossed in the second half to clinch the clean sweep, while also keeping France out as Wales conceded just two tries all Championship – still a record.
BUILDING A SIDE
That success was a testament to Gatland’s ability to inspire a team and make the little adjustments to turn defeats into victories.
But after 12 years in the job, we know one of his other great strengths is moulding a side.
A year later they were not that far away from a second successive title. Narrow defeats in Paris, and then at home to Grand Slam champions Ireland condemned them to third.
It marked a changing of the guard in the team, and after a couple of down seasons, Gatland had started rebuilding with a very young core, many of whom got their first opportunity in the 2011 Championship.
Handing the captaincy to Sam Warburton, then just 22, when Matthew Rees was ruled out of the World Cup through injury, Gatland’s side went on a magical run in New Zealand.
After losing by a point to South Africa in the pool stages, they stifled the life out of Ireland in the quarter-finals, before falling by a single point again to France – Gatland would get his revenge!
All that was achieved with the likes of Warburton, Taulupe Faletau and George North still in their infancy in the international game.
By the following spring they had taken a step forward, and recorded a second Grand Slam of the Gatland era and a third in eight years.
Starting on the road once again, they won a thriller in Dublin thanks to a late Leigh Halfpenny penalty before Scott Williams’ rip and run saw them beat England at Twickenham once more.
As had been the case in 2008, it was France who stood in their way in the final game, and Alex Cuthbert’s try in the 20th minute ended up being the difference in a 16-9 success.
Having been part of the British & Irish Lions set-up under Sir Ian McGeechan in South Africa in 2009, Gatland then got the top job in 2013 for the Tour of Australia.
That meant a break from coaching Wales, and Gatland credits that sabbatical – and a second in 2017 – for his longevity in the role.
“It has been some experience. I have said on a number of occasions I never thought I would have been in Wales for 12 years. I was lucky enough to have had a couple of sabbaticals with the (British and Irish) Lions and that was good for me mentally.”
In his absence Wales won the Championship in 2013, hammering England in Cardiff with a 30-3 success that denied their neighbours across the Severn Bridge both the Grand Slam and the title.
Gatland enjoyed several memorable wins over England, including two years later in the World Cup when they came from behind to stun Stuart Lancaster’s side.
That win helped knock the hosts out of the World Cup at the pool stages, while Wales were denied in heart-breaking fashion by South Africa in the quarter-finals.
Another cycle ended, and having been hit hard by injuries, Gatland recognised the importance of building greater depth in his squad.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
That has arguably been the greatest achievement over the last four years. Again Wales caught the injury bug in Japan, but they were able to cope because of the talent available.
After watching England then Ireland win Grand Slams and dominate the Championship, it was Wales who timed their run perfectly in 2019 on their way to Gatland’s third clean sweep.
Rather than finishing up against the French, this time Wales kicked off in Paris, pulling off the most remarkable comeback as they fought from 16-0 down to beat Les Bleus.
That was arguably the closest they came to losing, as they got the better of England in Cardiff, weathering an early storm to pull clear of Eddie Jones’ team.
Ireland had no answer in the rain on Super Saturday at Principality Stadium, and Wales were able to celebrate once more.
Gatland then oversaw only the second win over one of the southern hemisphere’s big three at a World Cup as Wales downed Australia in the pools, before exacting revenge on France with a one-point success eight years on from that fateful semi-final.
The dream of a World Cup final against England was ended by the Springboks, and instead Gatland will end his run against the country of his birth.
Prior to that, he expressed his gratitude for the support he has received over the last 12 years. As Gatland readily admits, the Welsh rugby public can be very demanding, but for those who succeed, the rewards are extraordinary.
He said: “I would like to thank the Welsh public. They have been challenging at times but they have made it worthwhile in terms of just how welcoming they have been to me in Wales. They have been so hospitable and it is really like a second home for me in Wales and I am going to miss being there.
“We’re a very small playing nation with a lot of history and the biggest memory I have is the smile we’ve put back on people’s faces to wear the red jersey again and to support the team.
“That makes a massive difference to the whole of Wales as they’re proud of the team and the players wear it with pride. They put in 100 per cent and as a coach that’s all you can ask.”
There is just one more game to go and the chance to secure that elusive win over the All Blacks. If they do that, it will not just be Gatland smiling.