Rugby World Cup: Inside Warren Gatland's mission to rebuild Wales

It was early July when the Wales squad met in the team's base in the Vale of Glamorgan, 11 miles outside Cardiff. They heard their plans for the following week, when the team would decamp to Switzerland for the next stage of their Rugby World Cup preparation. There they would live 2,212 metres above sea level in Fiesch, but train at a more considerate altitude. The promise was that it would be brutal, but, equally, the players would feel the benefits of the training once the World Cup started.

After the logistics were read out, Warren Gatland addressed the squad. "We're the smallest tier-one nation in terms of numbers and resources," he said. "We've always punched above our weight and never given in. We're going to be mentally tough, we'll be in good shape, and we're going to work hard. That's what we're going to hang our hat on. We're never going to give up."

That's the ethos Gatland built his first Wales tenure on, and the mantra he's taken into his second spell. The players change, but the aim remains the same: Reach the World Cup knockouts, and then it's anyone's game. As Wales prepare for Australia on Sunday, in the key Pool D clash, they're still trusting in this team's principle aim: Be a tough team to beat.

Gatland's first spell in charge of Wales was a remarkable success. Back in 2007, the team exited the World Cup in the pool stages, after defeat by Fiji. Then manager Gareth Jenkins was dismissed in a car park. They called Gatland, and from 2008 to 2019 he led them to four Six Nations titles -- three of them Grand Slams -- and reached the final four of the World Cup in 2011 and 2019.

When he left in 2019 to return to New Zealand -- where his wife Trudi, son Bryn and daughter Gabby all lived -- he left with one message for the future of Welsh rugby: "It would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums."

Three years and a month on, Wales rugby was at its lowest ebb. The team in 2022 had lost at home to Italy in the Six Nations and been toppled by Georgia in the November Tests. Gatland was in the U.K. at the time, working for Amazon Prime as a pundit. The England job was also available after Eddie Jones had been dismissed. But the lure of returning to a team used to punching above its weight proved too much for Gatland, and on Dec. 5 Wayne Pivac was dismissed and Gatland took on the hot seat for the second time, signing a contract through to 2027.

When Gatland returned, there were suggestions he could tarnish the legacy he had previously left. "So what?" was his view. It felt like a seamless return, back to the place he had called home for 11 years and to the Principality Stadium, where a set of gates were named after him.

But nothing could prepare Gatland for the scale of the Wales rebuild. When he took the job, there were familiar faces from his previous tenure, like Prav Mathema (medical manager), Rhodri Bown (head of analysis) and Neil Jenkins (kicking coach). The team manager, Martyn Williams, also played under him, but there were also a host of vacancies.

Gatland wanted to bring back attack coach Rob Howley, however, the approach was blocked by the WRU; Howley worked with Gatland in his previous tenure, but was sent home from the 2019 Rugby World Cup for a breach of betting rules. "I would have loved to have had Rob," Gatland said in January. "Hopefully he will continue to be involved in rugby. I just think I'd like to see him involved at the highest possible level again in the future."

Behind the scenes there were rumblings of discontent with the players waiting on contract offers from the WRU and the regions.

They got through to their opening match against Ireland -- Gatland's former side. Before kick-off, Gatland turned to his players and asked them what it meant to them to wear the Welsh jersey. He had seen standards slip from his previous regime; they used to leave changing rooms spotless, but that wasn't something they had maintained under Pivac. He wanted them to reconnect to the passion behind the jersey, and what it meant to represent a country that didn't have its own bank but always punched above its weight.

Wales lost their opening two matches of the Six Nations. And they very nearly didn't play their third match against England as the players threatened to go on strike. After intense behind-closed-doors negotiations, the strike threat was averted but it only added to the size of the rebuild. Ken Owens stood in front of the media and said Welsh rugby had become a "laughing stock".

All the while the WRU was also facing allegations of sexism and discrimination from a BBC investigation. The handling of the investigation and allegations led to the resignation of WRU CEO Steve Phillips in late January.

Gatland's original expectations for the Six Nations had shifted. It became a case of just getting through, and learning as much as he could about the squad. They would win one out of five matches -- against Italy -- and finish fifth. "I probably needed to let things unfold a bit and not be as direct or demanding as I might have normally been," Gatland said later, looking back on the championship.

Gatland named his extended 54-man training squad for the Rugby World Cup on May 1. There was a combination of 10 uncapped players and a series of well-established internationals, but the picture changed just over a fortnight after he had confirmed the squad.

On May 19, both Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric announced their retirement from international rugby. Gatland had visited Jones in Mumbles, and the two had spoken about the summer ahead. "Having been selected in this year's preliminary Rugby World Cup squad and after ongoing dialogue with the coaching staff and the WRU, I have decided to step away from the international game," Jones said on his social media channels.

Tipuric's announcement on the same day was coincidental. He phoned Gatland an hour or so after he learned Jones was retiring. "It was based on his concern that his body would not hold up through the intensity of the training because he was not 100% right," Gatland said in his column for The Telegraph.

Other players would drop out or be excluded. Prop Rhys Carre was dropped from the squad on June 1 after he "failed to meet individual performance targets". "We had agreed with him on achieving some targets, which he had asked for, but unfortunately had not met. This is international sport," Gatland said.

Rhys Webb would also make himself unavailable on May 31, as he took up a two-year contract with Toulon. Cory Hill came back to Wales from Japan with a view to playing in the World Cup but he was met with the regions in disarray and any potential interest from the Gallagher Premiership was distorted by the influx of available players on the market from collapsed clubs London Irish, Worcester and Wasps. He would soon return to Japan to play for Secom Rugguts, and left the Wales squad on June 9.

Ken Owens, who captained Wales through the Six Nations, withdrew with a back injury on June 26, while back-row Josh Macleod and prop Will Davies-King were also sidelined.

And then there was Joe Hawkins, whom Gatland couldn't pick. One of the main outcomes of the strike was the change of the 60-cap rule -- a rule which prohibited Wales from picking an overseas-based player unless they had a minimum of 60 caps. This was reduced to 25, but Hawkins' decision to take up a two-year deal with Exeter saw him ruled out as he was on five caps.

"I think the onus is on us as a national team to be more successful, for the regions to be more successful, so we retain our players and they want to be part of teams which are successful here," Gatland said at the time. "We thought Joe was going to be a big part of our future either in the midfield or potentially playing at No 10.

"I've talked to Joe two or three times and we are disappointed to be losing someone of his talent and potential for the next few years."

Despite all this, the team met in late May to start the World Cup preparation. Gatland wanted to change the negativity in Welsh rugby. "There hasn't been a lot of positivity about rugby in Wales," Gatland said. "We'd like to change the narrative and get as much positivity about there as possible. That has a huge psychological effect on the players in terms of trying to send those messages. I am excited and I am telling you now that this team will do something special. I love Wales being written off and people can keep doing that because it just makes us stronger."

With that, Gatland had a goal: To change the mindset of the players. He wanted to put the past six months behind them, and instead look at what they were capable of. He didn't want to talk about must-win games, or creating a team desperate to win at all costs; instead he wanted to shift this to make the Welsh team hard to beat. It was almost reverse psychology. He felt that if you built a team that would fight for one another, defend for their teammates, then winning would come from that base.

The team went through a grueling set of pre-World Cup camps. It started with a day with The Green Mile army fitness camp in Taffs Well. "They did some stuff where we had them put in hoods, having water tipped over them when they weren't expecting it," Gatland said. "Babies crying, things going off, and it wasn't a full day. We went there in the morning and finished about 1 p.m. The boys had a bit of lunch, we put some beers on; some had a beer and stayed there for about an hour and enjoyed each other's company and had some laughs, had some photos with the guys, presented them with a jersey, it was a really good company that was a little bit different."

Explaining the rationale behind the day, Gatland said: "It was different and made them think about things from a different perspective, in terms of being in stressful situations, being in a game where you don't expect things and how do you react to that. You make a mistake, you come under a huge amount of pressure, how do you get your composure back? ... Trying to relate to those situations. Yeah we've been working hard but every day is not brutal, I can promise you that."

Gatland remembers one example where the players were tasked with swimming under water for 15 metres straight off the back of vigorous exercise. It was meant to be an exercise in regulating and controlling your heart rate and calming yourself down. He remembers how prop Nicky Smith struggled but completed the task on his third attempt while being cheered by his teammates.

They journeyed to Switzerland for their pre-World Cup camp at altitude. Players talk of it being the hardest training camp they had been through, where the body's pain overlapped with mental strain.

They then headed to Turkey for hot-weather training. By the time the World Cup warm-ups started -- Wales would have two matches against England, and one against South Africa -- Gatland wanted his players to be comfortable pushing the match to a higher ball-in-play time than commonly seen in international rugby, then relying on their fitness to get them through those moments.

Gatland saw that pre-World Cup spell as essential time both in short and long-term planning. It allowed him to get his coaching staff together and get a handle on where the players were both for this World Cup, but also with half an eye on 2027. "There's no team in the world who's worked as hard as you guys have; no one has gone through what you guys have gone through in the last couple of months, I guarantee it," he told the squad.

Leading into that first game, George North was asked about the work Gatland had done: "After the Six Nations, we all took it very personally, as we do, because it's our fingerprints on it. And Gats himself took it on himself to make it right. From day dot he's been back to it and he's found his voice, for sure. He's been back playing his normal mind-games, he has been around the boys geeing them up, he has been poking the bear as well. He knows exactly what he wants now, and he has instilled it within his coaches, and then from them into us.

"I know from Six Nations to now it is much different. Gats has had the ability to put his stamp on it, more than he did in the Six Nations."

The first World Cup warm-up saw Wales beat England 20-9, with five players winning their first caps: Max Llewellyn, Corey Domachowski, Keiron Assiratti, Henry Thomas and Taine Plumtree. Leigh Halfpenny would also win his 100th Test cap. The reset was in full swing, but their defeat at Twickenham in the reverse fixture a week later had the biggest bearing on the final World Cup squad. Gatland was furious with the manner of their 19-17 loss, and it helped form the final 33-man party.

On Aug. 21 the players faced nervous waits to find out if they made the squad. They were asked as a group how they would want to be informed if they had missed out on a spot: Email, phone call or text. Dewi Lake opted for phone call. About 9 a.m. on the day of the squad announcement, his phone rang. It was Gatland. Lake had been worried about his prospects of making the cut as he had been struggling with injury, but instead Gatland was asking him if he would be co-captain with Jac Morgan.

Gatland felt Lake and Morgan could lean on each other as co-captains, and also saw the early signs of a spine forming for Wales in the next two or three World Cups. They also had the bonus of not having been as exposed to the complicated Welsh rugby politics like others more experienced in the squad. The young players felt comfortable around the two co-captains, while the older players weren't threatened by the decision.

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Gatland had seen the quiet confidence of the young group of Welsh internationals breaking through, and it reminded him of 2011 when he turned to a young Sam Warburton to captain Wales into that World Cup. "Some of the older players are looking over their shoulder at the younger ones and know they have to work hard because they face competition. That's what I want," he said back in June.

The players picked their own leadership group. Each player in the squad was asked for five picks, and the players with the most votes would be their voice.

They had already finished the pre-World Cup campaign with a heavy defeat to South Africa, but the attention was already on the opening match against Fiji. With a group of Fiji, Australia, Georgia and Portugal, a team could win three of their four matches and still not qualify. They focused on that opener, knowing they had to win.

When Wales arrived in France, Gatland reiterated the message he had delivered in May. "We think that we have done well in previous World Cups and would like to get to a final of a World Cup," Gatland said. "I stated beforehand don't write us off and that this team is capable of doing something special, and I still believe that.

"Part of the key themes and key message before this World Cup was to make sure we are a hard team to beat, and if we are a hard team to beat then things can happen for you.

"The first priority is to be a really tough team to beat, and if we do that and get things right and our preparation is good and we don't pick up too many injuries, then there is no reason why we can't continue to progress a long way into this tournament. That is the plan."

Behind the scenes, Gatland ensured the families were well-cared for. Trudi, Warren's wife, had been the point person for families in his previous tenure, and this was brought back for the World Cup. She would organise the coach travel for families to and from matches, along with match tickets, and ensure everyone felt involved and cared for. Through all of this, Gatland emphasised the need for the players to spend time with their family. "It's been lush," North said. "Having my two young boys, my wife and my parents here has been great. I'm a big believer in you have to switch off to switch on at rugby.

"The requirements of you every day, physically and emotionally, is tough so to be able to have that time with your family is great. It's nice for my kids to see what it means and where dad goes."

Family-first has always been one of the central pillars of Gatland's philosophy, drawing on memories of when he was coach of Galwegians when he was 26-years-old and was granted time away from the club for family reasons.

The player's families were all around the squad as they prepared for their opening match of the World Cup against Fiji. Gatland told his coaches to take a step back that week, and allow the players to take the lead in training and preparation. He kept the messaging concise, not overcomplicating things. But all the time Gatland was reiterating both privately and publicly how key their fitness will be. "It's not whether I believe it, but whether the boys believe it," Gatland said. "We've worked incredibly hard and the boys have been through some tough, grueling camps and sessions.

"From that point of view, we can take a huge amount of confidence going into the World Cup. In international rugby, you have to go to dark places and have to be hurting. It's whether other teams are hurting that little bit more than you."

Two games and 10 points on, and it's Australia on Sunday. Win that and Wales will be in the knockout stages of the World Cup for the fourth tournament running. But it all comes back to the hard work they did in the summer and the post-Six Nations reset. There are echoes of the 2011 crop who reached the semifinals about this group, but they aren't getting carried away. It's not the Gatland way.

"This is his fifth Rugby World Cup, which no other coach has done," assistant coach Alex King says of Gatland. "He understands when to push players and coaches, when to pull back and then he lets the players lead as the week develops.

"He's a very experienced coach. Sunday is a massive game, there's no shying away from that, but Warren has been there and done it -- the Lions, Wales, European Cup finals -- so it's great to have him around us."