Warren Gatland has had his say on the Rugby World Cup in France in his recent UK Daily Telegraph article. Wales failed to progress beyond the last eight not because they were outfought and outthought. Rather that there is something wrong with the rules of the game, and how it is played at the highest level. Unsurprisingly the article divided opinion and invoked strong feelings no matter which side of the argument you were on.
This writer believes that Welsh rugby is too much of a homogenous mass from top to bottom. Bear with me and I will try and explain. South Africa (whose tournament-winning shoes we all want to be in don’t we?) is a diverse team. Not just in visible terms (race), but in terms of thought too. Individuality, and dare I say it, eccentricity is welcomed. Why else was Rassie Erasmus able to hold on to his job through his well publicised ups and downs? Or Ox Nche able to espouse the merits of cake on popular social-media channels without being threatened with disciplinary sanction, or given lectures by health campaigners? Or why are Christians such as Pieter-Steph du Toit openly allowed to talk about their faith without press scrutiny and ridicule?
Wales, from the rugby club, to the field of play, to the gym, rewards staying on script. Stay away from saying anything controversial. Fit-in or get out. For people on the outside it remains a closed shop. Don’t believe me? Read this. The WRU have taken some baby-steps to change things since but, it is still early days. Call me bitter, but Wales doesn’t like out of the box thinkers.
By way of example, Mark Ring in the eighties didn’t accumulate the caps his abilities deserved. Carwyn James ended up dead and alone in Amsterdam having coached the British and Irish Lions to victory over the All-Blacks in 1971. He was notably not given the chance to take the reins of the Welsh national team. Due to what the WRU felt at the time were too excessive demands. In more recent times the only person coming close to being unconventional was Andy Powell and his infamous golf buggy incident. No hard feelings but that was more high-jinks than 3-D chess.
What diversity of thought brings is the ability of teams (if united) to think and strategize on the hoof. Realistically, in terms of progression in rugby, it’s evolve or die. The WRU, Welsh regions and clubs up and down the land need to bear this in mind. Gatland is at risk of tarnishing his successful first stint at the helm of the national side. In those days between 2008 and 2019, he was more at the forefront globally with regard to tactics. He was ahead of his northern hemisphere rivals and at a similar level (if slightly behind) his powerful southern-hemisphere rivals.
A way forward for Wales and Warren Gatland?
Should Wales and Warren Gatland wish to compete at the very highest level. They need to take a leaf out of the Springboks book. Adapt, use every possible weapon and scrap of knowledge to your advantage with the rules as they are, not what you wish them to be. Don’t complain, and cry foul. You create more enemies by griping and convince your opponents that they are on the right track. More generally, Welsh rugby, please welcome the outsider into the clubs, gyms and onto the pitches of Wales. There are bound to be some good and bad times as the environment changes, but surely this is the right way to go.