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Warren Gatland takes positive approach as he leaves hairdryer at home

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: November 24, 2012

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THERE were some who predicted Warren Gatland would march back into the Wales camp in drill-sergeant mode, bellowing at those who had performed so poorly over the past fortnight.

The thinking was the feet of certain players wouldn't touch the ground as Wales's head coach gave a passable impression of a 1950s RSM, subjecting those under his command to early morning marching before leaving them to peel the spuds.

Instead, Gatland turned up at Wales's team announcement exuding a remarkable calm.

It was as if he had spent the time since the Grand Slam meditating in Tibet. Nothing appeared to faze him. If a fire alarm had gone off, you felt he would have finished his coffee before joining everyone else outside the Vale hotel.

Wales in crisis? What crisis?

It wasn't just for the media's benefit, either.

"This has been my first experience of working with Warren and it has all been positive," reported Aaron Jarvis.

"How has he been? Calm and collected, encouraging the boys and telling us we're a hell of a team."

No hairdryer, then?

Apparently not.

Gatland's approach since Monday has revealed a more subtle side to his make-up than many give him credit for.

He is good at knowing when to show people the light and when to show them the dark.

Not long after the New Zealander arrived in Wales, Alix Popham was singled out for public criticism, while Alun Wyn Jones later copped flak after a misadventure at Twickenham that saw him concede a costly yellow card.

That was then; this is now.

This week, the double Grand Slam-winning head coach has identified lack of confidence as being a key issue for his team and that is why he has taken every opportunity to publicly back them.

So we had Rhys Priestland acclaimed as an "incredibly talented player", Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric feted as "two world-class sevens", Jonathan Davies lavishly saluted as well.

Even the Welsh scrum, not so much shoved around as destroyed by Samoa in the final 20 minutes last week, was resolutely defended, with Gatland preferring to talk about the first hour against the islanders and expressing the belief that the Welsh pack could achieve set-piece parity against the All Blacks.

We'll see.

But you don't need to be a psychologist to acknowledge that telling players how good they are ahead of the biggest challenge some of them will have faced in their careers is smart man-management.

Time has been short and the requirement has been to convince players they are not as bad as the sorry lot they have appeared to be so far this autumn.

No-one should believe a bit of ego massaging will guarantee anything against New Zealand.

But it was a start in hauling Wales from the pit of despair they were stuck in after losing to Kahn Fotuali'i, Census Johnston and Co.

Why, some players have even felt sufficiently buoyed to express a measure of cautious optimism.

Mike Phillips was one. He was tempted down the crease by a googly Muralitharan in his prime would have been happy to put his name to: Are Wales ever confident they can beat the All Blacks?

If the scrum-half offered an unqualified 'yes' as an answer, you could see the banner headlines in New Zealand suggesting the cocky Welsh believe they can win. If he gave a 'no', people would wonder why this fixture ever takes place at all.

So at the last moment Phillips resisted the temptation to go in for some verbal slogging, instead saying: "Are Wales ever confident they can beat the All Blacks? I think so. Quietly."

There was more. "I think you have to believe in yourself. We've had a bit of success over the last couple of years and we're looking forward to facing a top side like New Zealand.

"We need to believe in ourselves individually and collectively if we are going to stand a chance of winning, but we appreciate it's going to be a tough ask.

"I think we can go out there and put a performance together.

"We have to win the set-piece, perform well defensively and pick the right options in attack. If we do all that, hopefully we can be there or thereabouts."

If Wales are to make a contest of it, they need senior players like Phillips to point the way forward. He has had a bumpy season to date, disciplined by Bayonne and left out by Wales for the first match of the autumn, but at his best he is the most fiercely competitive scrum-half in world rugby. South Africans still talk about him with grudging admiration after the way he stood up to them with the Lions in 2009, refusing to take a backward step and going toe to toe with a pack that included several players who may or may not have been considered for work as Bond villains, among them Bakkies Botha, Schalk Burger and Bismarck du Plessis.

Certainly, there are Roman gladiators who would have complained about some of the stunts that were pulled by the Boks in that series. But no-one — forward or back — stood his ground more firmly than Phillips.

Wales could do with him in that kind of mood against the All Blacks.

"We want to put some pride and passion back into that jersey," he said.

"We have to stand up and deliver."

No-one should underestimate the scale of the challenge.

Richie McCaw has won more matches in international rugby than any other player, a mountainous 101 triumphs. Put that in context: the entire Welsh back division has only five more Test successes between them.

It is significantly because of such experience that the All Blacks keep winning. When they are in trouble, they don't panic; leaders step forward. When they need to lift their game as a team, McCaw and other key players up their performance levels, spurring those around them.

They can also play at a pace no-one else can match.

Gatland will inspire his players and convince them they can have a serious crack at the tourists. He will tell them to stay positive.

A few of them may even choose to wear 'Keep calm and carry on' T-shirts.

Nonetheless, no-one outside the camp should expect too much.

Reality can be sobering.

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