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Dan Sheridan/INPHO Gatland speaks to Joe Schmidt in 2019.
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Gatland sets sights on downing Ireland to start his new Wales era
The returning Kiwi’s first game in charge will be against Andy Farrell’s men in Cardiff.

THERE WON’T BE much of a settling-in period for Warren Gatland as he returns to the Wales job with just over nine months left until the World Cup kicks off. Time is of the essence.

There really won’t be any easing back into the gig. Gatland’s first game in charge after taking over from the sacked Wayne Pivac is a clash against the world’s number-one-ranked team.

Andy Farrell’s Ireland will visit the Principality Stadium in nine weekends’ time for the opening game of the 2023 Six Nations. There’s no doubt that this Irish side are eyeing a title success and perhaps a Grand Slam, but Gatland will now begin plotting to burst their bubble in Cardiff.

The return of the 59-year-old New Zealander adds another layer of intrigue to the upcoming Six Nations, a championship in which France and Ireland look like being the front-runners. We know that the top level of Test rugby can change quickly these days though. It’s a volatile era.

Gatland is clearly of the mind that he can make an instant impact in improving Wales. His track record with the Welsh is impeccable. Three Grand Slams, a further Six Nations title, and two World Cup semi-finals well and truly papered over the cracks further down the Welsh rugby system. The WRU needs him to do something similar again now.

The Kiwi boss has promised that there will be “little time for sentiment,” suggesting that he sees the need for change in the playing squad, and also underlined that “performances and results will follow” if Welsh rugby can get this next period right.

It feels almost perfect that his first game back is against Ireland, where he obviously has such history. 

It’s also well-known that Gatland isn’t afraid to use the media to build pressure ahead of games. He regularly labelled Ireland as favourites ahead of battles in the past, which was often very accurate. He has also claimed in the past that his Welsh players disliked Ireland more than any other team. He has taken some heat back too.

We await to see if any such ‘mind games’ are part of the Gatland plan this time around. 

warren-gatland Robbie Stephenson / INPHO Gatland on Amazon Prime during the autumn Tests. Robbie Stephenson / INPHO / INPHO

What really matters is who he picks in his team and how he sets them up. The most recent evidence suggests that he will bring a more pragmatic edge to the Welsh side than was the case under Wayne Pivac, who wanted his team to be expansive and take risks with ball in hand. 

The tag of ‘Warrenball’ never did Gatland’s style of rugby with Wales justice, given that it was dripping with negative connotations and insinuations of a boring game plan. Perhaps it wasn’t the most exciting at times but it was deeply effective and Gatland’s Welsh side could certainly play when their directness had created opportunities to do so.

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Wales under Gatland were nearly always hard to beat and that wasn’t the case recently under Pivac. The immediate sense is that Ireland’s task on the opening day of the Six Nations has just got more difficult.

It’s going to be fascinating to see how things work out for Gatland and Wales the second time around. His new deal could keep him in the role all the way through until the 2027 World Cup in Australia. 

There is a hell of a mess to get sorted underneath the national team in Wales but Gatland has a history of being able to achieve in spite of what is going on within the system.

The WRU has a serious job in its hands to build a cohesive, content rugby landscape. But none of that will be in Gatland’s mind right now as he reviews Ireland’s autumn campaign and begins to plot how to beat them in Cardiff in early February.

The Six Nations just got a lot more interesting. 

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