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Wales face up to life without Gatland

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: December 03, 2012

By Robert Lloyd

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SO Warren, see you next November.

A Lions adventure Down Under awaits the New Zealander and if the 2013 tour proves as gripping, breathless and dramatic as the Wales v Wallabies encounters of the past 12 months, a classic series awaits.

On Saturday evening, with the dust barely settled on Kurtley Beale's last-gasp try and Nathan Sharpe's farewell conversion, Gatland was being asked about the progress of players battling for that coveted red jersey.

And it reminded everyone in the room that Wales are to go into the defence of their Six Nations crown in February without their inspirational leader at the helm.

The Welsh camp has made a collective attempt to play down the ''Gatland effect'' during this autumn series.

But is it coincidence that Wales's best two performances of the series — against the All Blacks, followed by Saturday's 14-12 defeat to Australia — came with Gatland in the hot seat?

You feel for Rob Howley because his tenure as interim coach will always have the New Zealander's shadow hanging over it.

And, no doubt, an indifferent Six Nations defence will see the former Wales No. 9 face the same criticism he received during the opening two weekends of this autumn when Argentina and Samoa came, saw and conquered.

On a personal level, nobody will begrudge Gatland the opportunity of taking the reins of Britain and Ireland's finest.

It is the pinnacle for a player and should be seen as the same for any coach in the game.

But in the cold light of day, the Welsh Rugby Union's decision to allow their double Grand Slam-winning coach to take this sabbatical is already having an impact.

On the back of Saturday's seventh successive loss, Wales go into today's World Cup draw in London sitting among Tonga, Italy and Scotland in the third tier of nations.

They have a right to feel a little aggrieved because a World Cup semi-final and a Six Nations title clearly counts for little when it comes to the vagaries of the IRB rankings system.

But as well as the potential for being drawn in a pool alongside New Zealand and England, Wales's fall from grace could also have an affect on how many games Cardiff will host during the 2015 tournament.

At least Saturday's display against the Wallabies didn't look like that of a side considered the ninth best in the world.

Wales were incisive in attack, inventive in their kicking game and showed the defensive resolve that has been the hallmark of the Gatland-Shaun Edwards regime.

But there was also a frustratingly familiar inability to see out the victory.

How often have we bemoaned the fact that Wales have been unable to land that killer blow against the southern hemisphere heavyweights?

Think South Africa in the World Cup opener, think Australia in the summer, think endless November contests in Cardiff long before Gatland arrived in the Principality.

It is all about possessing that icy composure in the dying minutes when the lungs are bursting and the legs are weary that separates the best from the rest.

And Wales continue to come up short.

"Today felt like the day when we were going to do it," admitted skipper Sam Warburton.

"We've had a tough campaign losing the previous three games, tough for the players and tough for the friends and families who have been involved in it as well.

"A win would have been a great finish for us.

"But we lost composure at the end and that has happened too many times before.

"This is the hardest defeat I have ever had to take as a player."

So, apart from a potentially treacherous World Cup draw, where does this autumn series leave Wales?

They have appeared more like their old selves in the last three halves of rugby — unrecognisable from the stodgy, unimaginative, one-paced outfit that fell to Argentina and Samoa.

The likes of Liam Williams, Aaron Shingler and Scott Andrews have adapted quickly to the demands of Test rugby, while Leigh Halfpenny, Warburton, Jamie Roberts, Jon Davies and Mike Phillips won't have suffered too much damage to their Lions prospects.

Wales didn't want to deal in excuses on Saturday evening, but there is no doubt injuries have hit hard in a series as physical as any that has been witnessed at the Millennium Stadium.

And with likes of Adam Jones, Dan Lydiate, George North and Alun Wyn Jones back in the ranks, Warburton will lead his side into the Six Nations believing they are as good as any other in the tournament, regardless of England's rousing win over the All Blacks at Twickenham.

However, the benchmark in world rugby these days is not about European success — progress is measured by SANZAR scalps.

"We haven't really thought too much about the Six Nations yet, but I guess we have to remain positive and ambitious like we always are," added Warburton.

"I told my parents when we won the Grand Slam that I wasn't going to have 10 to 12 years of my career always on the upward curve.

"I always knew there would be blips, but we will keep working hard and stay positive.

"This will not dent the players' confidence because we know how good we can be.

"We just have to keep going, keep our heads up and I think we will be fine," he added.

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  • weslangdon  |  December 03 2012, 11:32AM

    There was a big improvement when he came back, sorry to say this but his stand in has been a disaster

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