Analysis: Gatland right to be confident as he seeks last hurrah

Of everything Eddie Jones said at the Guinness Six Nations Launch last week, perhaps the warmest was when he was discussing Wales instead of England.

Of everything Eddie Jones said at the Guinness Six Nations Launch last week, perhaps the warmest was when he was discussing Wales instead of England.

Even now the Australian clearly remembers locking himself away to study Wales before the 2007 Rugby World Cup quarter-finals in his role as South Africa’s technical adviser, in the expectation that Gareth Jenkins’ side were heading straight for the Springboks in the last eight.

However, in their final pool game they lost to Fiji and were knocked out in one of the biggest shocks in World Cup history.

Weeks later Warren Gatland was in. And months later they were Grand Slam winners.

“It made me do an extra six hours work because I then had to look at Fiji,” Jones joked.

“That’s where they were when he took them over. Look at the job, he’s won two Six Nations, got them to third in the world. Absolutely fantastic job.”

A lot has changed since 2007; for Jones, rugby and the world around them, but Gatland and Wales have remained a consistent force in the Championship.

When February arrives each year, something stirs in the lands between Holyhead and Cardiff.

That feeling is there again.

A collective belief that this again could be their year just three days out from the opening match in France. Indeed, a collective belief in Gatland as he heads into his final Championship in charge.

History suggests they should not be ignored.

Warren’s way

Few coaches have made quite the same mark as Gatland has on the Championship. As statements go, inspiring a rejuvenated Wales to victory at Twickenham in his first game in charge was rather emphatic.

But then the New Zealander has never been one for subtlety and his edgy style has married perfectly with the team he coaches.

Following that win at Twickenham came another famous win at the historic and hostile Croke Park where Ireland laid their hat midway through the last decade. The Grand Slam followed a week later.

The 2005 Championship will perhaps always be the most romantic for Wales fans as it came 27 years after their last but that year they had the luxury of hosting England and Ireland.

In 2008, they did it the harder way.

Still, this was a side that soon needed re-generating and Gatland relished it. His young, abrasive side, with the likes of Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts at its heart, came so close to a first World Cup final in 2011 and the momentum continued into the 2012 Championship.

England and Ireland were once again conquered on the road as Wales soared to a second Grand Slam and, although it was Rob Howley who led them to the defence of their title a year later while Gatland was on a sabbatical with The British & Irish Lions, it was still the New Zealander’s side at heart.

The best yet to come?

Yet, despite that success, there remains a sense that Gatland’s masterpiece is still to come, the ace up his sleeve still to be played.

Ireland and England, who have shared the last five Championships between them, are once again commanding the attention, leaving Wales in the shadows.

Ireland are seeking history. Win all five matches this spring and they become the first side to have won the Grand Slam in successive years since Italy joined the Championship, while England, boosted with a cavalry of fit-again players, have a point to prove after last year’s fifth-place finish.

Both have legitimate reasons to be eyeing up the trophy. Yet both will know that to do so they must ride into Cardiff and win – easier said than done.

Wales are ranked third in the world and are just two victories away from the longest winning-streak in their history, while in the autumn, they swept all before them – including a momentous win against bogey side Australia.

They have been slowly building a team to compete for the game’s biggest prizes and last year jumped from fifth to second in the Championship table.

Gatland also has more options than ever before. Dan Biggar and Gareth Anscombe are locked in a battle for the ten jersey, Josh Navidi has become a star at flanker and the likes of the electric Steff Evans and lightning Jonah Holmes add greater depth to the wing.

France present fierce first test

Of course, Wales’ true credentials can only really be assessed on Friday night when France host the Championship’s first match under the lights.

However, the omens there are also good. The Stade de France has become a favourite hunting ground since Martyn Williams inspired them to victory in 2005, with wins following in 2013 and 2015.

Indeed, Wales have lost just one of their last seven Tests against Les Bleus and that was only at the end of a 99-minute arm-wrestle two years ago.

Admittedly, on the eve of his team selection Gatland has some headaches. Taulupe Faletau and Leigh Halfpenny will miss at least the first two games through injury, while Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Shingler are also missing.

Liam Williams and Ross Moriarty are back just in time though and the squad which travels to Paris will be brimming with confidence.

Win there and who knows what will follow. One thing is for sure, Eddie Jones, and the other four head coaches, will be watching intently.