Warren Gatland: Wales' greatest coach, a 'scientist, crooner and rugby god'

By Dafydd PritchardBBC Sport Wales in Tokyo
Warren Gatland with a 'big much' gesture to his family before Wales' 2019 World Cup semi-final loss to South Africa
Warren Gatland with a 'big much' gesture to his family before Wales' 2019 World Cup semi-final loss to South Africa
2019 Rugby World Cup bronze final: Wales v New Zealand
Venue: Tokyo Stadium, Tokyo Date: Friday, 1 November Time: 09:00 GMT
Coverage: Full commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, BBC Radio 5 Live Sports Extra, plus live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app

Blink and you might miss it. Shows of emotion from Warren Gatland are a rarity.

His public persona mirrors the style of rugby which has made him one of the world's most respected coaches: pragmatic, methodical, occasionally blunt.

But at the end of some matches, you might see Gatland on the pitch with his arms outstretched, searching for someone in the crowd.

He is looking for his wife, Trudi, and his children, Gabby and Bryn.

"He does this thing out on the field when he can see us out in the crowd, he puts his arms out and it means 'big much' which means as much as you can love anyone," Trudi says.

"He does have that persona and part of his job is to take it very seriously.

"But he's quite a different character actually. He's got a great sense of humour and he likes to have a laugh, especially with the children.

"He's a bit quirky, he loves to sing. He doesn't sing very well but he loves to sing. His go-to song, if he's made to sing on the team bus or whatever, is 'Durham Town' by Roger Whittaker. But he won't do karaoke!"

Trudi, Gabby and Bryn can expect a particularly big air hug in Tokyo on Friday when Wales face New Zealand in the World Cup bronze medal match.

Wales coach Warren Gatland and New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will both end their tenures after Friday's third place play-off
Wales coach Warren Gatland and New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will both end their tenures after Friday's third place play-off

This will be Gatland's final match in charge of Wales, bringing to a close the most successful coaching tenure in the country's history, his 12 years yielding four Six Nations titles - including three Grand Slams - and a first stint as the world's number one-ranked side.

Gatland has also led Wales to two World Cup semi-finals, though how dearly he wishes his last game could have been a final against England - even if Friday's encounter pits him against his native New Zealand and gives him the opportunity to sign off with a first Welsh win over the All Blacks for 66 years.

With the pain of a 19-16 semi-final loss to South Africa still raw, Gatland is bound to be contending with a heady cocktail of emotions this week.

Beyond the steely veneer, even he will feel moved.

"The emotions will be there for his last game," Trudi says.

"When you see him in the stands and the camera's on him and he's very much the same whether they've scored points or had a yellow card, it's all going on inside. We usually have a joke with him about how he's smiling on the inside.

"He's really good at knowing when you can be emotional and when you need to be tough on people, rile them up or trust they know how to do the job.

"He's usually pretty even - the players talk about the confidence he gives them - but there is a bit of emotion there."

Short presentational grey line

Family first

Warren and Trudi Gatland
Warren and Trudi Gatland have been married 25 years

For Gatland, family is not only his priority personally but professionally too.

In order for his players to be able to concentrate on their jobs, he wants them to be free of distraction or worries off the field.

"The one thing that stands out hugely is that he's a family man and he knows how important family is for players," says Wales centre Hadleigh Parkes.

"You put everything aside - his coaching and his record with Wales, all that speaks for itself - and sometimes people can forget about what's going on at home.

"You come in and you're here to do a job but, for Gats, he wants things to be right at home because if things are right at home it makes it easier to do your job properly and do it well.

"If you have any family functions, or a birthday or a dinner, he's very accommodating. He'll allow you to go home straight from training or, even if something clashes with training, he might say we can do something in the morning and go in the afternoon.

"So for me, it's the way he approaches that side of it within a squad that's pretty special."

Such flexibility makes a difference to players, particularly someone like Parkes, whose wife Suzy is expecting their first child in November.

As a result, she has been unable to join the rest of Parkes' family in Japan but, thanks to Gatland, both the player and his partner have a support network.

Gatland met Trudi when they were studying to become teachers in Hamilton, and in March this year they celebrated 25 years of marriage.

They are quite a team, and Trudi now plays a leading role in looking after players' wives and girlfriends when they are following their partners during campaigns such as this World Cup.

"On this tour, we started with about 30 or 40 of us on a WhatsApp group, which Ken Owens' wife, Carys, set up and it's grown from there," she says.

"At the first game in Toyota the travel was quite difficult and the group became a bit splintered, so we asked what management could do for us and [Wales team manager] Alan Phillips organised a bus with 50 on that. For the semi-final we had three buses and almost 130 people.

"The families like to be able to wave the players off to the game and, although they're very much in the zone by that point with their headphones on and so on, they know we're there and there's a whole gang of us wishing them the best.

"We've really gelled and got close. It's been fantastic. It's nice to have the children around too - we've got Leigh Halfpenny's baby girl and Jake Ball's little boy here, and some of the management's children as well.

"Warren's emphasis is that family comes first and, if they're taken care of, the boys can focus."

Bryn Gatland, Gabby Gatland, Trudi Gatland and Warren Gatland during the 2017 Lions tour to New Zealand
Gatland's family - son Bryn, daughter Gabby and wife Trudi - has been the bedrock of his rugby career
Short presentational grey line

It started with a helicopter ride

Gatland knows how important family is because his have been a constant source of support wherever his work has taken him.

Following spells with Ireland and London Wasps, a return to Waikato meant the Gatlands were just getting used to life back in New Zealand in 2007 when a phone call came from the Welsh Rugby Union's chief executive at the time, Roger Lewis.

Wales were at one of their lowest ebbs.

After a dismal Six Nations campaign they had been dumped out of the World Cup in the pool stage by Fiji and head coach Gareth Jenkins was sacked in a car park.

"Things had to change," says Lewis.

"During those dark days at the World Cup I realised we had a unique opportunity, because virtually all the best coaches in the world would be out of contract following that competition.

"What I did was, quite simply, draw up a list of the 10 best coaches in the world and then I picked up the phone, rang them all and asked if they'd like to meet up and talk."

Failure at the 2007 World Cup ended Gareth Jenkins' (L) time as Wales coach and left WRU chief Roger Lewis (R) searching for a replacement
Failure at the 2007 World Cup ended Gareth Jenkins' (L) time as Wales coach and left WRU chief Roger Lewis (R) searching for a replacement

Lewis met several candidates including current New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen and his assistant Ian Foster, former Australia coach Robbie Deans and Gatland.

"In that very first meeting it was absolutely apparent - and bear in mind I'd spoken to some of the best coaches in the world - that Warren Gatland was the right man for us," Lewis recalls.

"He came from a blue-collar background of hard work and honest, straight-talking but also had about him a wonderful mix of edge and humility.

"As soon as you met him you realised you could talk straight about the business but also you could go out and share a pint with him. He knew when to switch on and he knew how to switch off."

Lewis wanted Gatland, and he was determined to get him but this could be a hard sell.

For all the lustre of Welsh rugby's history this was now a team on its knees. Gatland would need some convincing.

"When he came to Wales a few weeks later, I not only flew him by helicopter to see Wales from the air - to see the rugby heartlands of the Gwent Valleys, the West Wales Valleys, of Newport, Llanelli, Swansea, Neath, Bridgend and all around Cardiff - but I also flew over my home village of Cefn Cribwr," Lewis says.

"Later that morning, as well as driving him up through the valleys of the Rhondda, I drove him home to meet my mother. We sat down and had a cup of tea with my Mam that day.

"For the rest of the week, Warren stayed with me and my wife at our house in the Vale of Glamorgan and we just chatted about the future.

"He came back a few weeks later and we did the deal. That was in 2007 and I'd like to say we've remained friends since.

"During that period, over nine years, we not only had a close professional relationship but we would regularly chew the fat over a beer and a curry."

Short presentational grey line

The transformation

Warren Gatland celebrates Wales' Grand Slam-clinching win over France in Cardiff in 2008
Warren Gatland celebrates Wales' Grand Slam-clinching win over France in Cardiff in 2008

The appointment paid off immediately. In his first game in charge in February 2008, Gatland led Wales to a first win over England at Twickenham since 1988 and then a Grand Slam.

It was an extraordinary turnaround from the previous Six Nations campaign, which had yielded just one win and included one particularly dire defeat in Italy.

The scale of the transformation was all the more remarkable because of the speed with which Gatland had achieved it.

Jenkins, although a likeable character and successful domestic coach, was regarded by many of the squad as something of a throwback to the amateur era, struggling to keep up while rivals embraced the precision of the modern game.

When Gatland arrived, everything changed.

"You knew he was special when he came in because he was unbelievably professional," says former Wales centre Tom Shanklin, a member of the 2008 Grand Slam-winning side.

"The intensity he brought to training was something we had never experienced. He wants to train you hard so that the games seem easy.

"The best thing about him is that he always keeps you on edge. You'll pass him at meetings or in camp and you'll never know if he likes you or really dislikes you. He'll never let on."

Gatland can be ruthless. If he does not believe a player is performing to his full potential, he will let them know.

No player is beyond reproach, as he demonstrated with a public dressing down of Alun Wyn Jones after his "stupid" yellow card against England in 2010, which the lock described at the time as "brutally honest".

But everything Gatland does has a purpose.

Jones, now Wales' captain and record cap holder, respected his boss for that "cut-throat mentality" in 2010 and he still does to this day. The inspirational skipper leads with the same intensity as the coach.

That attitude is infectious and Wales' players all demand the highest standards from one another.

Sunday's semi-final loss to South Africa was agonising but it was not a tale of gallant defeat in which Wales teams of bygone eras might have wallowed.

There was pride but more disappointment. Under Gatland, Wales live in expectation rather than hope.

"Gats has made us expect to go out and win games," says centre Jonathan Davies.

"We probably started off in his first few years punching above our weight but now we feel we belong in the top flight of world rugby.

"He's brought that edge to us and it's no surprise to us to be playing in a semi-final. We expected that.

"Gats has turned us from people who punch above our weight into people who compete at the highest level and rightly so."

Short presentational grey line

The legacy

Lions coach Warren Gatland congratulates Wales hooker Ken Owens
Warren Gatland led the Lions to a series win in Australia in 2013 and a drawn series in New Zealand four years later

Having started his reign with victory over England, Gatland said after last week's semi-final loss to South Africa that his dream had been to end his time in charge with another match against England, this time in a World Cup final.

It was not to be, though on Friday he does have the chance to sign off with a first Wales win over New Zealand since 1953.

It will be a match rich with meaning for the 56-year-old, who masterminded a British and Irish Lions win over the All Blacks during the 2017 drawn series and will return to his homeland after the World Cup to coach the Chiefs in Waikato.

When he does so, Gatland will leave a legacy of huge significance.

"He's not got the greatest player pool to pick from but he gets the best out of his players," says Shanklin.

"He took a lot of criticism but it is unbelievable what he has done and he will go down as the best coach ever."

It is a measure of Gatland's standing that he should be considered the greatest coach to have worked in Wales, considering the achievements of Clive Rowlands and John Dawes, who oversaw Welsh rugby's golden period of the 1970s, and Carwyn James, the only coach to lead the Lions to a series win in New Zealand.

Gatland can further cement his reputation when he takes charge of his third Lions tour in 2021 against South Africa, bidding to remain undefeated in a Lions series against the southern hemisphere's big three.

"He fits alongside, without question, Carwyn James," says Lewis.

"You have Carwyn James as the poet and I think you have Warren Gatland as the great scientist."

Short presentational grey line

'A rugby god'

Warren Gatland ahead of his final match in charge of Wales

Neil Jenkins, the former Wales fly-half who has been a part of Gatland's coaching staff throughout his tenure, goes even further.

"He is a god, a god of the game as far as I'm concerned," he says.

"An incredible person and I have been very lucky to have been involved with him over the period since he started in 2008."

The tributes will be as numerous as they will be effusive over the next few days as Welsh rugby comes to terms with the end of an era.

And Wales' loss will be the Gatland family's gain.

While Warren's career has helped them live a happy life, his years spent over on the other side of the world have also left the household without a father and a husband for long periods.

But these are the sacrifices Gatland has made to make his Wales reign a success, and neither he nor his family would have it any other way.

"We'd only been home three years when he got offered the Wales job because we'd been with Ireland and London Wasps," says Trudi.

"The children were at that age, 12 and 14, where they were building their own lives and friendships in school and with sport.

"Even though 12 years seems a lot, it's half of Bryn's life, it's gone quite quickly and it hasn't.

"It will be hard to leave Wales. Warren will definitely miss it.

"There will be aspects he doesn't miss - it is a goldfish bowl in Wales - and it's difficult for him to go anywhere without getting recognised. But that's also a great thing, that people are so passionate and know so much about rugby and just want to wish him well and thank him.

"So many great things have happened for him and his career. He would never do anything differently.

"He has sacrificed things for his family because it's important to him that he provides for his family. We've had a fantastic life.

"That's the sort of man he is."


Join the conversation

These comments are now closed.


Top Stories

Elsewhere on the BBC