Warren Gatland will on Saturday equal Bernard Laporte’s 98 Tests in charge of one country for a Six Nations coach and by the summer should have eclipsed Sir Graham Henry’s all-time record of 103 with New Zealand.
One day after the 10th anniversary of his first match in charge of Wales, the New Zealander is the first coach in history to reach a decade at the helm and would have reached his century in 2016 but for two Lions sabbaticals.
He arrived when Wales were in a familiar crisis, dumped out of a World Cup at the group stage, but won the Grand Slam at the first attempt, repeated it four years later after guiding Wales to a World Cup semi-final and when they pipped England to the Six Nations title in 2013, the side were in their most successful period since the golden era of the 1970s.
As Gatland, who is pitting his wits against his 19th Six Nations opposite number in Gregor Townsend, prepares for resurgent Scotland, he is facing his most demanding time since he arrived in Cardiff at the end of 2007. Wales have not won the Six Nations since 2013, the last time they defeated England in the tournament, and in 2017 they lost more matches than they won in the championship for the first time since the start of the decade.
Gatland is grappling with an injury list that includes seven of last summer’s Lions while an eighth, Ross Moriarty, is two matches into his comeback from a back injury the No 8 at one point feared might force him to retire. Gatland has throughout his coaching career confronted adversity head-on, forging a unity of purpose and desire that has often camouflaged a relative lack of resources.
He delights in confounding opinion which is why in the past two weeks he has constantly referred to the expectation that now surrounds Scotland who, despite their poor away record in the championship and no victory in Cardiff since 2002, are fancied to start the Six Nations with a win on the road for the first time.
Wales have in the last two years modified the style that brought them success without abandoning its sinewy foundation. It is to the familiar they are likely to return against a team who thrive in broken play despite the presence of 10 players from the country’s leading region, the Scarlets, who push boundaries as much as Glasgow, evoking memories of Wales’s 2005 Grand Slam rather than Gatland’s two.
It is as much of a misconception that the Scarlets are all frills as it is a fantasy that all Barry John did was run with the ball. Winning rugby comes in more than one guise and Wales’s perceived advantage against Scotland will be up front where their opponents have been beset by injuries. The more scrums the powerful Scarlets’ front row have, the greater the chance of Wales winning with a Frenchman, Pascal Gaüzère, blowing the whistle.
In his past seven internationals Gaüzère has sent off four players and pointed 16 to the sin-bin, including the Scotland captain, John Barclay. Pressure leads to penalties and this referee has a low tolerance threshold. He has, though, refereed Scotland three times in the past year, including their last match, against Australia in November, and as the Wallabies discovered, they are better equipped than most to ruthlessly exploit a man advantage.
Scotland’s rejuvenation in the past couple of years has been timely with South Africa and France both in a prolonged slump, but this match will be a test of their character and nerve more than ability. On the surface, Wales’s thirst for victory should be the greater trips to England and Ireland to follow, while their opponents are home to France and England, but this feels like the moment for Scotland to show tangible signs of progress.
They threatened in Paris last year before succumbing to the relentless power and force of France. Scotland resemble New Zealand in their capacity to turn defence into attack and frolic in open spaces but the All Blacks have mastery at the set pieces and are never bullied. When Scotland add meat to their spicy sauce, they will be contenders again. If the autumn is for building teams and styles, the Six Nations is about concocting a winning blend. Gatland did so quickly with Wales and, as neutrals cheer for Scotland, Townsend has to do the same.