Warren Gatland Admits Not Everyone Wants To Get On Board His World Cup Bandwagon

Whether the 2023 Rugby World Cup is a glorious success for Wales or an abject failure, it’s likely that Warren Gatland will look back to this build-up period as the time when the eventual destination was punched into the Satnav.

If Wales get through their pool and go deep into the tournament in France, then those first few weeks spent at the Vale of Glamorgan resort will be viewed as character-forming for the whole squad.

Crash and burn before the knockout stages and the roots of the ill-fated journey will be traced to the same period.

It’s one of those trips where no one really knows where you’re heading until you arrive.

Head coach Gatland has faced a very challenging start, with major difficulties in just keeping everyone on the bus.

No sooner had he named his huge initial 54-man squad than Gatland was told by his former captain Alun Wyn Jones and hugely experienced forward Justin Tipuric, they had decided to retire instead.

Then, scrum-half Rhys Webb – who had spoken of his pride and unfinished business after getting back into the squad for the Six Nations – decided that business hours were over and he, too, would be concentrating on club rugby instead.

It was not too long before Gatland himself trimmed the group further by releasing Cardiff prop Rhys Carre for failing to make the required fitness and conditioning targets.

Handled well, that decision might have been accepted without too much of a furore. But the choice to issue the news through a one sentence update on Twitter – devoid of any context or input from the player himself – drew harsh criticism for the Welsh Rugby Union.

When it came to protecting mental health, many claimed it showed the WRU were happy to talk the talk but not actually walk the walk.

Next came the withdrawal of Cory Hill, who said he wanted to go to the World Cup but had felt obliged to take a club opportunity, instead. For the sake of his family.

So, are Wales heading towards World Cup disaster? Is there anyone who can keep the bus on the road and enough players on board?

Well, yes, there is. It’s Gatland. He may have his detractors at present, but history has shown that no one is more versed in turning storm clouds into sunny uplands.

Nobody gave Wales much chance before the 2011 World Cup, but they reached the semi-finals. Likewise, in 2019.

The difference between then and now, perhaps, is one that Gatland himself appreciates and has raised concerns about – namely, that the pull, the lure of international rugby is not quite what it once was.

In difficult economic times for the sport, players are naturally putting their families and their livelihoods first. The uncertainties around selection for Test rugby means club or regional commitments suddenly look far more secure.

“I’ve made that point that we’re not a reflection of where Welsh rugby has been at for a number of years,” admits Gatland.

“We’ve got to, hopefully, put things right and there is an opportunity now. The regions have got to deal with the Union and put plans in place in terms of moving forward.

“These issues have been here before and we were probably blocking up the dam in terms of them not really coming to the fore because of the success we had.

“I think the onus is on all of us, for us as a national team to be more successful, for the regions to be more successful, so we retain our players, and they want to be part of teams which are successful here.”

Gatland will hope that all the players who remain in his World Cup group are fully committed and on board all the way to Bordeaux and that first meeting with Fiji on September 10.

For those that are, only one thing is guaranteed. They will be worked hard, far harder than in a normal pre-season when they are with their clubs or regions.

The years may have changed Gatland’s appearance but not his core beliefs.

“Playing for 80 minutes and not going away, working incredibly hard for each other, and having that desperation – you’ve seen that in the past and it’s something I’ll definitely be focusing on again,” says the New Zealander.

“We’ve got to build a mental toughness in us again and get back to what we prided ourselves on and what other teams respected us for having.”