Analysis: Gatland right to be excited by Wales’ strength in depth

It is 11 years since Warren Gatland first walked through the door as Wales head coach – assured, confident and determined to succeed.

It is 11 years since Warren Gatland first walked through the door as Wales head coach – assured, confident and determined to succeed.

Two Grand Slams and three Six Nations titles later and he is guaranteed a place among the greats of Welsh rugby – and probably a free pint wherever he goes between Wrexham and Newport.

But Gatland isn’t done just yet and there is a growing sense that his masterpiece could still be ahead – his best still to come.

Ireland, revelling in their historic victory against New Zealand, are rightly commanding the headlines but Gatland is quietly assembling his strongest squad in a generation – and Saturday’s contest with South Africa comes at just the perfect time.

Third in the world rankings and unbeaten in Cardiff in seven Tests, Wales are on a roll, so it’s no wonder Boks head coach Rassie Erasmus is worried.

Saturday’s match will end a November campaign which has seen South Africa fall in London, scrape by in Paris and battle in Edinburgh in a trio of energy-sapping, high-class Test matches that have pushed them to the very brink.

But Erasmus insists their biggest test is still to come. The Springboks have not beaten Wales in three years, since they broke Welsh hearts at Twickenham.

The 2015 Rugby World Cup started so positively for Wales but Gatland lost nine players to injury before the quarter-finals, where the Springboks wore them down and snatched a late victory.

Fast-forward three years and things are very different.

Like a kid in a sweetshop, Gatland has almost too many options to choose from. No longer are square pegs needed to be forced into round holes.

“We have four tough matches on this tour but are ending probably with the toughest,” Erasmus said.

Ireland are rightly enjoying their day in the sun following their memorable victory against the All Blacks in Dublin.

They have set the standard, created the blueprint and have become the target after a stellar 12 months.

But on the same day, Wales sent out an emphatic 74-24 statement of their own against Tonga – the latest in a very impressive autumn.

They have seen off Scotland in the Doddie Weir Cup, fought past Australia for the first time in 14 Tests and eased through Tonga. Only New Zealand and Ireland sit above them in the world rankings – and all only 18 months from finishing fifth in the 2017 Six Nations.

That rise has been as steady as it has been impressive. A second-place finish in the 2018 Championship was followed by a series win in Argentina and now three straight November victories.

The 9-6 success against Australia might be the eye-catching one but it is the win against Tonga which really stood out.

It might not have been a victory on the same scale as Ireland’s but matches against tier two opponents have often been Wales’ undoing – with their previous lack of depth exposed in clunky performances.

Samoa, Fiji, Georgia and Japan have all either beaten or scared the Dragons in the past. But not this time. Not this Wales.

Tonga threatened to cause an upset but conceded 50 unanswered points and ten tries. All against a team that had made 14 changes from the previous week.   “There are definitely going to be some disappointed players next week.” Gatland has made no secret of his excitement. This, in his opinion, is by far and away the most competitive squad he has had.

At fly-half, he has three options in Gareth Anscombe – his choice at the beginning of November – Rhys Patchell, who made a delightful cameo off the bench on Saturday, and Dan Biggar, who kicked the winning penalty against Australia and was outstanding against Tonga.

On the wing, George North remains one of the best in the world and, although Josh Adams might not be yet in his league, Premiership defences can attest that the Worcester Warriors flyer is already a fine player.

Liam Williams, one of the stars of The British & Irish Lions’ Tour of New Zealand, had to settle for a place among the replacements against Australia. He started against Tonga and scored two tries.

Then there is Scarlets flyer Steff Evans and Ospreys’ Luke Morgan, back from becoming Wales 7s’ all-time top try scorer.

At centre, once the domain of only Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Tyler Morgan and Owen Watkin are now on the scene, while the versatile Anscombe and Patchell, along with Leicester Tigers’ Jonah Holmes, provide Leigh Halfpenny with stiff full-back competition.

At lock, Alun Wyn Jones is the great leader – a colossus on and off the pitch. His place is almost assured but, in Adam Beard, Cory Hill, Jake Ball and Seb Davies, there lies an impressive cast list hoping to co-star.

And that is the before you even look at the back-row options, which has always been Wales’ strength. Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty, Ellis Jenkins and Aaron Wainwright are all at the top of their game while Taulupe Faletau will hope to be back by February.

Gatland did not have this depth three years ago.

“This is the most competitive squad we’ve had. We have always spoken about creating depth, and we’ve done that,” Gatland said.

“The pleasing thing for me now is, I can pick a bench knowing they are going to have a strong impact as well.”

Wales have always been a force when at full speed. Being Grand Slam winners in 2005, 2008 and 2012 attests to that, with another title in 2013 chucked in for good measure.

The reaction in Ireland this week has been widespread celebration but the men from Cardiff have them in their sights ahead of the most eagerly-anticipated Six Nations in years.

“Winning is a habit, and so is losing. To continue to win, sometimes you have to win ugly and have a bit of luck as well,” Gatland added.

“The squad is in a really good place mentally, there is some real competition, and we are building nicely to next year.”

Ireland and England have shut Wales out of the Six Nations picture since they last won the Championship in 2013 and may well start as the two favourites again.

But Gatland and Wales have their mojo back and one thing is for certain – if nine players go down again, Wales will still thrive.