Tuesday, February 21. In a crunch meeting at their Vale Resort training base earlier this year, the consequences of potential strike action were spelt out to the Wales squad.
Warren Gatland’s players were told in no uncertain terms that if they refused to play their Six Nations game with England, they would not only cost the Welsh Rugby Union close to £10million and bankrupt the governing body, but also rob rookie back Mason Grady of a potential Test debut.
There was mutiny and anger in the air. Emotions were running high. Wales’ players were divided over whether to strike or not, but there was collective frustration at the contractual and financial uncertainty dogging their country’s rugby landscape. There was an acknowledgement things needed to change.
Head coach Gatland would later admit there was a ‘significant split’ in his camp that was ‘quite fractious’ and created ‘tension’ among the group. The strike was eventually called off.
Grady won his first cap. The WRU banked their much-needed money as England, unsurprisingly really, won at Principality Stadium. But an extraordinary week changed Welsh rugby forever.
Mason Grady made his debut against England in the Six Nations, but it was a dark period for Welsh rugby as the players threatened strike action and the WRU narrowly avoided bankruptcy
Warren Gatland admitted there was a ‘significant split’ within the squad earlier this year
It was one of the lowest points in the history of the nation’s No 1 sport.
That’s saying something as there have been plenty to choose from over the years. At the time, it was hard to see a way out of a nightmare campaign. This World Cup looked a disaster waiting to happen.
But, a little over seven months later, Wales have gone from fractious and divided to – in their own words – a ‘band of brothers’ and quarter-finalists in France with one pool game still to play.
Welsh rugby has been used to peaks and troughs down the years. Supporters are familiar with either feast or famine and no middle ground.
But, by anyone’s standards, their team’s 2023 turnaround has been truly remarkable. Few could have seen it coming. So, how have Wales gone from zero to hero?
Ahead of their crunch World Cup clash with Eddie Jones’ Australia on Sunday, the wives, girlfriends and families of Wales’ players and staff gathered together in the team’s Lyon hotel.
Head coach Gatland has always placed a big emphasis on family. He believes it should come above everything else. Gatland believes if a player is happy off the field, they will perform on it.
Before departing for France, his squad’s loved ones were all invited to watch training at the Vale and a barbeque was organised afterwards. Gatland wanted to heal wounds left sore by the strike threat.
His wife Trudi plays a key role. She co-ordinates travel to matches and pre-game events with the aim of making everyone with a connection to the Wales side feel like they are part of one team.
‘We spoke a lot about family,’ said fly-half hero Gareth Anscombe after kicking 23 points against Australia. A 40-6 hammering of Jones’ Wallabies sealed Wales’ last-eight place.
Wales dominated Australia on Sunday to book their place in the World Cup quarter-finals
They ran in three tries to make it three wins from three in France
Part of Wales’ success can be attributed to the family environment that has been created on and off the pitch
Anscombe continued: ‘The management have done a great job in connecting us with our families. Warren spoke about them pre-game and I think he hit the nail on the head.
‘It was about putting in a performance worthy of the sacrifices our families make.
‘When you get those moments on the field after the game and you can see the happiness of your family, that’s what it’s all about. It’s why we play the game.’
Forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys said: ‘The families are very close – they’re around the environment. You can hear them all laughing and joking and having a good time.
‘We reiterate we do this for them. That’s what it’s about – right down to the bones. It’s incorporated in everything we do.’
It is understood that under the guidance of former head coach Wayne Pivac, there was a feeling in the Wales camp that the team environment and culture was not what it was during Gatland’s first spell in charge. After returning for a second stint in Welsh rugby’s hot seat, Gatland immediately set about rectifying that as a top priority. Initially, it proved difficult.
Wales won just one game in this year’s Six Nations as the impact of players worrying over their futures off the field understandably impacted performances on it. But, after a fifth defeat in six matches, Gatland wiped the slate clean.
Following a 41-28 loss in Paris, Gatland gave his players an unequivocal message in the Stade de France changing rooms. The squad was told the plan moving forward.
‘He (Gatland) pretty much said to us the World Cup is going to be the hardest thing you’ll ever do,’ said Wales centre George North.
‘And if you don’t want to be there, let me know now. He didn’t lie.’
Gatland’s remarkable coaching career has seen him enjoy plenty of success. But, in many ways, his methods are very basic. That is not to belittle them at all. Sometimes, it pays to keep things simple.
Gatland wants his players to be happy, work hard, and be in prime physical condition.
He has always thrived when it comes to preparing for World Cups. Parachuted in at the 11th hour for the 2023 tournament after Pivac was sacked last December, Wales’ preparations for France were already set in stone. Gatland couldn’t change much. But, at gruelling training camps in Cardiff, Switzerland and Turkey, he and his staff soon got to work on their team’s fitness.
There can be no doubt Wales look one of the strongest teams here in France when it comes to their ability to go to the well for 80 minutes.
‘We had some home truths out there,’ full-back Liam Williams said of Wales’ summer camps.
The Welsh players had to listen to home truths after a tough year, but that has paid off at the World Cup
‘Once we got on the same page we’re, as the head coach has said, a hard team to beat. And that’s what we’re being at the moment.’
Gatland added: ‘There were a lot of things going on before the Six Nations with contract issues so it was about understanding the frustrations from the players.
‘I probably didn’t realise at the time the impact that had on the coaching staff and probably even myself. I had to sit back and let things unfold until after the Six Nations.
‘We’ve been together for four months now. We’re proud our success has been based on hard work and punching above our weight. We get confidence and momentum from results.
‘That makes us even more dangerous going forward.’
As those in Welsh rugby’s boardroom finally got their act together and players at last started to be offered contracts, Gatland could see light at the end of the tunnel.
He even refused to let the withdrawal from the World Cup of Welsh greats Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens and Justin Tipuric – as well as Rhys Webb and Cory Hill – alter the direction of travel.
Where many saw only doom and gloom, Gatland saw opportunity. He promptly handed the Wales captaincy for the World Cup warm-up games to youngsters Jac Morgan and Dewi Lake.
Jac Morgan (pictured) has taken the captaincy in his stride despite being just 23 years of age
Morgan taking the captaincy has drawn comparisons with Sam Warburton being given the same honour back in 2011 before leading to Wales to the World Cup semi-finals
It immediately drew comparisons with 2011, when Gatland made a then 23-year-old Sam Warburton skipper and Wales reached the semi-finals of that year’s World Cup.
Now, it really does seem as if history is repeating itself. After bonus-point victories over Fiji and Portugal and their destruction of Australia, a last-four spot in France is well within Wales’ reach.
Gatland has already reached his fourth World Cup quarter-final with Wales. He should be confident of making a semi-final in France – as he did in 2011 and 2019 – because if Wales beat Georgia in their final Pool C tie, one of Argentina, Japan or Samoa would be their first knock-out opponents.
That should hold no fear for Gatland or his players.
Forged as a group by their collective summer experiences, the Wales squad escaped the purgatory of their altitude Swiss training camp with a series of bonding measures which have continued in France.
Williams leads the card school, with gin rummy the squad’s favourite game. The players are divided into three groups – Premier League, Championship and Conference – depending on their ability.
Small stakes change hands. The mickey-taking is ruthless.
Wales’ squad often splits up into small groups for restaurant dinners known as ‘mini meals’ when the team’s chef Andre Moore is given the night off.
‘I’m in the group in charge of entertainment and also on challenge of the week with Gareth Thomas and Dan Biggar,’ said prop Dillon Lewis. ‘Me and Gareth do all the leg work and Dan stands up and presents it to everyone. With entertainment, Liam is pretty active on that.
Dillon Lewis (pictured) has played his part in ensuring things never get boring away from playing matches and training
‘Between both, it’s quite a good laugh and we get some good things going.’
When it comes to the Wales team environment, the presence of Caroline Morgan has been noticeable in France. Morgan is the long-standing assistant to the national side and is hugely popular with the players. She does not always travel abroad but is the organisational glue that binds Wales together.
If any player or staff member needs something, they turn to ‘Caz’.
‘We’ve had a lot of changes with coaches and I think that’s made the difference to be honest,’ said scrum-half Gareth Davies, who fell out of favour under Pivac but is now back as Wales’ starting No 9 and once again thriving at a World Cup.
‘We’re all back to where we want to be under this management. We’re fighting and playing for each other and the environment is good which is the main thing. We’re enjoying our time off the pitch. We’ve got a good bunch of boys and it shows. Warren has got his way. It works for me and it obviously works for everyone else. He gets us all going.’
Wales celebrated becoming the first team to reach this World Cup’s quarter-finals with beers in the changing rooms. Lock Adam Beard’s rendition of Atomic Kitten’s Whole Again to mark his 50th cap brought the house down. The squad and staff have all been given three days off after the Wallaby win to recharge the batteries. Some have stayed in France. Others have returned home.
With his team riding high, Gatland has once again stressed the importance of family time and recharging the batteries in what is a long tournament. Seven months ago, many would have predicted an early Welsh exit. Now, the aim must be to stay until the tournament’s end.
Wales are, by their own admission, in the easier half of the draw and still off the pace in comparison to sides such as Ireland, South Africa and France.
But their senior players have stepped up to be counted in this World Cup.
Senior players Dan Biggar (right) and Liam Williams (left) have stepped up, with the later also in charge of the squad’s card school off the pitch
Taulupe Faletau is another senior star who has stood up and been counted when most needed
Fly-half Biggar, No 8 Taulupe Faletau – who missed all of the summer’s warm-up games – and Davies have all had excellent tournaments to date. They have not been alone.
Wales were outstanding to a man against Australia, executing the basics well. The combination of talented youngsters like Morgan with the old heads of Biggar and Faletau is working nicely.
Gatland has talked about putting ‘pride back in the Welsh shirt’ after the team suffered humiliating losses to Italy and Georgia under Pivac’s guidance. He has already done that.
Faced with a choice of staying in the lower realms of World Rugby’s rankings – which is where they were at the end of the Six Nations – or aiming higher, the Wales squad has rolled up its sleeves and got to work. On and off the field, the team is now in a much better place.
To bump into and chat to several of the players in a Versailles shopping mall ahead of the Australia game was to talk to men who are once again happy in their work.
That wasn’t the case in the Six Nations. There can be no doubt problems still remain in Welsh rugby.
Gatland can’t fix everything and the upcoming publication of an independent report into allegations of sexism and misogyny at the WRU is something Welsh rugby will have to urgently address.
But, on the whole and after a shocking start to 2023, there is once again a much-needed feelgood factor back in the country’s national game.
This World Cup is serving as yet more proof that Gatland and Wales are a match made in heaven.