Six Nations 2019: Wales with much to play for in Warren Gatland’s long goodbye

Wales’ longest-serving and most successful coach is in the home stretch of his time in the job.

After 12 years, Warren Gatland will stand down after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Gatland’s reign has seen Wales win two Grand Slams and reach the semifinals of the World Cup, while the Kiwi has also led the British and Irish Lions on two tours.

When Wales kicks off the Six Nations in Paris on Friday, Gatland begins a long goodbye that will finish in Japan, when he will hand over to successor Wayne Pivac.

We pick out some of the highlights of Gatland’s time in charge and assess his chances of finishing with a flourish.

GRAND SLAM WINNERS

Wales had ended its long wait for a Grand Slam three years prior to Gatland’s first Six Nations in the job, winning the championship in 2005 to complete a clean sweep for the first time since 1978. But it did not take Gatland long to repeat that feat after he was brought in to replace Gareth Jenkins, who had been dismissed after Wales made a pool-stage exit at the 2007 World Cup. It was a success built on defense, with Wales conceding only two tries over the course of the championship, but one that reaped the benefits of the attacking talents of players like Shane Williams. A first Twickenham win over England since 1988 and a Triple Crown-clinching win in Dublin helped Wales on its way to a Grand Slam wrapped up against France in Cardiff.

WORLD CUP SEMIFINALS AND ANOTHER CLEAN SWEEP

Given his predecessor’s failure at the previous tournament, Gatland did not have a particularly high bar to beat when he took his players home to New Zealand in 2011. However, it is safe to say Wales exceeded expectations as it came agonizingly close to reaching a World Cup final for the first time. Amid rising optimism, the bid for glory ended in painful fashion. After losing skipper Sam Warburton to a controversial red card in the 19th minute of a semifinal against France, Wales fought doggedly to stay in the game, only to be beaten 9-8. It was France’s turn to be on the receiving end of a one-point defeat as New Zealand won the trophy, before Wales emphatically underlined its credentials as the pick of the northern hemisphere sides by securing another Grand Slam in the 2012 Six Nations.

22 – Sam Warburton is the youngest player ever to captain a side in a Rugby World Cup match, he was 22 years and 341 days old when he led Wales against South Africa at the 2011 edition. Leader. pic.twitter.com/N8hpUcVken

LIONS LEADER

Gatland’s achievements with Wales have been impressive, but he also made a huge impact in two tours as the Lions coach. A host of his Wales team played starring roles in 2013 as the Lions beat Australia 2-1 and Gatland was then at the helm again for the ultimate test in 2017 – a tour of his homeland. The Lions lost two of their tour matches before the opening Test and were then beaten 30-15 in their first meeting with New Zealand. However, a stirring fightback followed, with the tourists edging the second Test 24-21 and then holding the All Blacks to the most dramatic of draws as the series reached a remarkable conclusion at Auckland’s Eden Park. Gatland now appears the leading candidate to lead the Lions for a third time in 2021 when they visit South Africa.

A fitting finale to an amazing Test series @AllBlacks.

A huge thanks to all fans at home & abroad for your incredible support #LionsNZ2017 pic.twitter.com/kjKrTluu9y

A TEAM IN FORM

Only 2018 Grand Slam winner Ireland boasted a better record than Wales last year among northern hemisphere teams. Gatland’s men won 10 out of 12 Tests, including a hugely encouraging clean sweep of their November internationals. Victories over Scotland, Australia and South Africa – together with a thrashing of Tonga – extended Wales’ winning streak to nine Tests, two short of its record run.

THE PERFECT FINALE?

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Wales faces a stern test at the start of the Six Nations campaign, with a visit to France representing the first of three away fixtures in the championship. Intriguingly, the toughest match on paper comes on the final weekend as Wales hosts reigning champion Ireland. Given recent form, it is not unfeasible that both teams reach that contest unbeaten. Ireland is the clear favorite for the Six Nations and currently represents the leading European candidate for World Cup glory. However, Wales – third in the world rankings behind New Zealand and Joe Schmidt’s men – will surely be a force to be reckoned with if it makes it to Japan with most of the leading players available. Gatland could yet enjoy a dream send-off to his distinguished reign.

#GuinnessSixNations pic.twitter.com/8TmfF2Ayhz

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