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The eulogies for Warren Gatland’s reign as Wales head coach have been plentiful and effusive as his final Six Nations championship with Wales began earlier this month. The common theme that is emerging, as far as I can see, is that Gatland has been a ‘winner’, as he was recently described by his former captain, Ryan Jones. He has turned a limited group of players into a team of world-beaters. The only occasional critique levelled at him is in respect of Wales’s supposedly one-dimensional playing style. This negative is almost always used to juxtapose the positive that “it may not be pretty, but it delivers results”.
On the opening night of this year’s Six Nations, when asked as part of the BBC panel for his view on Gatland’s performance as Wales head coach, Martin Johnson gave a more measured judgement than his co-pundits, Sam Warburton and Martyn Williams. With a hint of scepticism he said, “he’s had his ups and downs but when you come in and win a Grand Slam, it gives you a lot of credit early on.”
I sensed a certain scepticism on the part of Johnson. Gatland’s record against Johnson himself as England coach (two wins and three losses) could well have been at the front of his mind.
I couldn’t help but share the cynicism I perceived in Johnson as I recalled the Groundhog Day that has been Wales narrowly losing to Australia for the past decade. A cursory glance at the stats above shows that Gatland’s win record as Wales coach to date is 55% (against England’s 64%, Ireland’s 62% and Scotland’s 45%).
Against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Gatland’s total win record is 17%, a total of seven victories in 11 years. For comparison England’s is 37.5%, Ireland’s 37.9% and Scotland’s 20%. Wales under Gatland have not won a single game against this opposition on tour. This is hardly a record that screams ‘winner’. Not in my eyes at any rate.
“It’s not all about the stats,” I hear you cry. Wales under Gatland have won the games that mattered, they say. Good examples of this are Wales’s 2013 ‘demolition’ of England’s Grand Slam aspirations in Cardiff, as well as Wales dumping England out of their own World Cup in 2015. These two games rank as the two best Wales performances under Gatland according to Wales Online. The third-placed performance in this list was a loss to South Africa in 2014.
Undeniably these were victories of great significance in their own right, but did they really matter that much?
Wales’ 2013 victory over England stole the Six Nations title from the English, so it was clearly important in some regard. But later that year, they went on to lose at home to South Africa and Australia in the Autumn Internationals. The following year they lost comfortably to Ireland and England and finished third in the Six Nations, so they hardly kicked on from this ‘important’ win to do anything remarkable.
Their 2015 World Cup win against England helped them to qualify from their pool at England’s expense. But in their remaining fixtures, they only managed a narrow victory over Fiji and another loss to Australia before eventually succumbing to South Africa in time-honoured fashion in the quarter final. It was hardly a successful campaign.
Gatland’s fans may cite Wales’s Six Nations success as the reason why he is a ‘winner’. Well let’s have a look at that. Wales under Gatland have won the Six Nations three times, including two Grand Slams. In the same period, England have also won three Six Nations championships, including one Grand Slam. Ireland have won four Six Nations titles and two Grand Slams.
In a cumulative Six Nations table over this time period, Wales are third, behind both England and Ireland, with an average finishing position of 2.7 under Gatland’s reign.
Wales therefore cannot lay legitimate claim to have been more successful in Six Nations than their peers under Gatland.
Admittedly, Gatland’s record up until 2013 looked rather rosier than both England and Ireland. One might therefore, argue that Gatland has been in the job too long and struggled to maintain his form. However, during this initial period where they won three Six Nations in six years, they managed only one lone victory against Australia, New Zealand or South Africa in 23 attempts. Ireland, England and Scotland all achieved a more respectable degree of success against the Southern Hemisphere sides during this period.
In these crazy ‘post-truth’ times we live in, facts do not seem to matter. In my opinion this phenomenon applies to most people’s assessment of Warren Gatland’s achievements as Wales head coach. Commentators and supporters alike repeat the mantra that Gatland has ‘got results’ and is a ‘winner’ in spite of the glaring statistics that show that, with one of the consistently strongest squads in international rugby, he has lost almost half of his games. Including 34 out of 41 matches against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
After over a decade of abject mediocrity for English rugby, England appear finally to have developed a strong group of players that should be able to compete with the strongest opposition consistently. If, as rumours suggest, Gatland will be named England head coach after this year’s World Cup, I expect this to be met by the media with general approval. I would find it impossible to share this approbation. In fact, I would be interested to see how many games Gatland could lose with England, with not only an extremely talented squad of players, but also this time with the added financial might of the RFU behind him.
A hard hitting assessment indeed. And a bold call so early on in the Championship. Will Dug be so dismissive of Gatland’s reign come the end of this Six Nations? And the end of this year in Japan? Only time will tell…