By Wales and Lions legend Shane Williams
The Lions tour told us many things about Northern Hemisphere rugby. It showed our sides can compete with the best in the world, that we, too, can play vibrant attacking rugby and that we shouldn’t fear facing anyone on the biggest stage.
After taking a week to contemplate the series, one thing jumped out to me; how lucky Wales are to have had Warren Gatland as coach.
He showed on this tour why he’s one of the best in the business.
I know from my own experience Warren is a very good coach technically. That goes without saying because his record speaks for itself. What he is also excellent at is dealing with the media, supporting his players in the environment around him, and galvanising a brilliant team spirit.
We saw all of that in spades in New Zealand. Warren took so much stick out there from the Kiwi Press and I thought most of it was unjustified. But the way he dealt with it all was impressive, he conducted himself very well, and came out with his reputation enhanced. It made me think about how Wales are going to move on without Warren. It’s going to be tough.
After the 2019 World Cup, Warren will leave and having been coach since 2007, that’s going to leave a massive void. The Welsh Rugby Union have to start preparing for that now. Will they be successful once Gatland has gone? Why not have your say and get the best odds with a brilliant Betting Portal
The next two years are going to fly by. Warren will enjoy a well-deserved break in the next few months, but before we know it the November series and the Six Nations will be upon us and the countdown to Japan will be well and truly on. That’s the way the modern-day game works now, the schedule is just relentless.
What the WRU can’t afford to happen is for Warren to leave, pack his bags and say thanks for the memories, without a succession plan in place. We must start looking at other options now and in the next 12 to 18 months we need Warren to start helping bring through the next generation of Welsh coaches.
That is already happening with Rob Howley and Neil Jenkins and if I was a betting man I’d say Rob will be the favourite to take the top job once Warren departs.
But there are other coaches who are coming through and two men I’d like to see embedded with Wales at some point in the next few years are Stephen Jones and Danny Wilson. Dai Young is another one, too, but his situation with Wasps could make that tricky.
Both Stephen and Danny were due to tour Tonga and Samoa this summer. That didn’t happen, but I think those two have bright futures with Wales. We talk a lot about developing players, but there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be doing the same with coaches. That’s why I’d like to see them involved in the back-room team, potentially in the autumn.
Stephen is a man in particular who I think has a really bright future. I obviously played alongside him for years, so I know what he’s like as a person and you only have to look at the way he’s got the Scarlets backs playing to see that he can have a big impact on any side he works with.
For me, he’s a future Wales backs coach in the making. I’m sure the Scarlets would have something to say if he went missing for a few weeks, but for the greater good it would benefit Wales if he could get some exposure to the international game as quickly as possible.
November could be a good time to do that and I’m hugely excited about Wales next season on the back of the Lions tour. As I’ve said, the next two years are hugely important.
What I saw from Warren in New Zealand showed me that he is willing to change his style and the way his teams play. People have slated so-called ‘Warrenball’, but I’m not interested in whatever people want to label certain ways of playing.
For me, what I see on the pitch is what matters and in New Zealand the Lions showed that even against the best team in the world they could create chances, attack the All Blacks at the breakdown, and make opportunities outside of the 13 channel. The last of those is important because that’s something Wales haven’t done for quite a while now.
For too long we’ve been committed to the same narrow game, but despite being given very little time to prepare with the Lions, Warren managed to get his team playing some expansive stuff at times. I thought there were occasions where they made the All Blacks look very average in defence. That’s some achievement.
Wales can take positives from that. In guys like Jonathan Davies, Liam Williams, Taulupe Faletau and Sam Warburton, some of the best players on the Lions tour were Welsh.
Jon in particular was superb and his work at outside centre allowed those both inside and outside him to thrive. I want to see that continue in November.
Wales are playing the best three sides from the Southern Hemisphere and I’d like to see some of the style the Lions used to great effect implemented by the guys. Warren has had plenty of success in the past, so I don’t think the game plan needs to be totally changed. But behind the scrum, I’d like to see Wales counter attack more, not kick as much, and maybe try to utilise two playmakers.
Rugby is going that way at the moment. There’s George Ford and Owen Farrell with England. Australia used Bernard Foley and Matt Giteau at the last World Cup and Johnny Sexton and Farrell combined well for the Lions. I’m not sure Wales have the personnel needed to do that – Owen Williams could be an exciting option at 12 – but whoever plays, I’d like to see them do so with confidence and an intent to try to stamp their mark on the opposition.
If they do that, anything can happen. That leaves me hugely excited about the next two years with Wales because the players and Warren will meet up later this year in a good place.
It might feel like the final frontier with Warren soon moving on, but confidence among the players and coaches should be sky high following on from the Lions. Add in the feelgood factor from Wales’ summer tour wins and it’s a pretty exciting mix.
Autumn will be tough, but with our squad in rude health, anything could be possible. When you want to make a change to a team’s style, it’s good to do it on the back of success and this could be the right time for Wales to implement a wider, more expansive game.
If they do that, as well as planning for life after Warren off the field, the next two years could be ones to remember. Should Wales achieve success in that period, then the Lions will have played a huge part in it.