Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Rugby World Cup: Gatland can slam brakes on Ireland

Wales coach Warren Gatland will come up against his former team on Saturday in Wellington

The relentless rain in Wellington seemed to sum up the mood of the country as New Zealanders struggle to come to terms with the fact that Dan Carter is out of the World Cup.

It is not quite a Princess Diana-nation in mourning scenario but it is not far off, with wall-to-wall coverage including footage of distraught Kiwis crying on camera.

The fact that the other totem of New Zealand rugby, Richie McCaw, is struggling with a foot injury (which the rumour mill suggests is a lot more serious than the All Blacks are letting on) adds to the sense of unease in Kiwi-land.

The World Cup has just gone up a few levels in intensity. The ‘lesser' nations contributed to an absorbing opening month of action and enjoyed a wonderful ride — colourful, charismatic, arresting ... and over.

The fact that this included upsets and heavyweight-rattling is good for the progression of the game but we are still left with seven of the ‘big eight' establishment in the quarter-finals with Argentina taking the place of the Scots who, for the first time in their World Cup history, have been sent home at the pool stages to think again.

It leaves four, compelling, knock-out clashes with the hosts versus the Pumas probably the most routine. Carter is a huge loss but, in truth, the All Blacks could play Kiri Te Kanawa at 10 and still cruise into the semi-finals. Not because Argentina are that bad a team — their forwards will give the All Blacks eight a good going over — but because the Pumas will not be able to live with the pace New Zealand put on the game when they crank up the gears.

The remarkable thing is that, after crashing out four years ago when Graham Henry realised the importance of having Carter (right) and McCaw on the pitch, the All Blacks find themselves in a situation where they have no established back-up for their top two players.

It gives hope to Australia and South Africa who are battling to face the ABs in the semis. After their defeat to Ireland, there has been a widespread assumption that the Wallabies will be sent packing but don't be so sure of that.

After the abuse they received from Kiwis post-Ireland, the motivation to meet the All Blacks in the semi-final could be powerful enough to drive Australia all the way to the final, particularly with David Pocock and Stephen Moore back in tow.

Similarly, England would want to be wary of making too many assumptions about dissent in the French ranks and consequent dire performances.

Quell surprise — Marc Lievremont has made a Horlicks of it but there is depth of talent in the France squad that has to be respected.

Three intriguing contests to look forward to but the Ireland-Wales clash in the ‘Cake Tin' in Wellington is shaping up to be the best of the lot.

Unlike the other contenders, this contest brings together two sides who are bang in form and turning Kiwi heads that, ordinarily, would only cast a cursory glance in their direction.

Warren Gatland's influence is crucial to the outcome of this contest. Back on home turf, the Hamilton man has been having a very good, very relaxed tournament and he fancies the Irish.

They are, obviously, a rugby nation he knows well from his time with Galwegians, Connacht and with the national team and Gatland understands the psyche, strengths and weaknesses of the Irish game.

Gatland's coaching career has been defined by its green hue. Coaching Wasps to beat Munster in 2004 was a huge achievement, steering Wales past Ireland in Croke Park in 2008 gave them the belief to go on and claim the Grand Slam against France and, going back to the nightmare of Lens in 1999 has surely influenced and girded Gatland for his second World Cup challenge 12 years later.

In terms of coaching achievement there are a lot of similarities with Ireland's Declan Kidney — they have both wielded a Midas-touch with teams they have overseen, achieved Heineken cup glory and Grand Slams at the first time of asking.

In the last 12 months, both coaches have suffered from mixed results but Gatland and Kidney seem to have got their World Cup strategies bang on and Saturday is a clash between two sides high on self-belief and confidence in their own ability.

Ireland will be grateful that Wales, after sauntering along under the radar for the first few weeks, are finally starting to be talked up after their exhilarating, nine-try, 66-0 retribution on 2007 tormentors Fiji last weekend.

And, while we can be certain Kidney will not abandon a lifelong policy of caution in public this week, there will be much anticipation when Gatland faces the microphones given his record of lobbing in a few grenades to delight headline-writers.

There has been nothing so far but as the intensity cranks up, a couple of broadsides from Gatland could steel Irish resolve just as they did in 2009 when he claimed the Irish and Welsh did not like each other and had a go at Kidney's capacity to “say nothing”

Gatland's record against Kidney reads two wins and two defeats, making Saturday's clash the tie-breaker but Ireland will use last March's reverse in Cardiff as a motivational spur — and not just because of the try that should not have been awarded against them.

These are two sides that know each other extremely well and, in what is certain to be a contest of tight margins, small things on the day, and in the build-up, could make the difference.

Kidney will do what he does best — play down the opposition, motivate his players to maximise their performance on the big stage and delegate to his able lieutenants for the specifics of the game-plan.

The Gatland factor is harder to predict, it can work as a positive or a negative for his side, and this is a fixture that appears to get under his skin.

We are nearing the 10-year anniversary of Gatland's falling out with the IRFU ‘blazers' and departure from Lansdowne Road and you always get the sense that he feels an extra need to prove himself when facing Ireland.

That can inspire you or throw you off balance. We shall see.

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