Six Nations: 'Few people realise how close we came to disaster' – Wales coach Gatland keen to move on from contract dispute

By Sports Desk February 24, 2023

Warren Gatland is keen to "draw a line in the sand" ahead of Wales' Six Nations clash with England, saying the threat of strike action had taken the team "to the brink of disaster" this week.

Saturday's fixture at the Principality Stadium was in serious doubt as Wales players considered making themselves unavailable amid a dispute with the Professional Rugby Board (PRB) and Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). 

On Wednesday, however, PRB chair Malcolm Wall confirmed an agreement had been reached with the Welsh Rugby Players' Association on several key issues, including wages and changes to the 60-cap rule that governed international selection.

Wales coach Gatland was forced to delay naming his team due to the uncertainty, and he says the effects of Saturday's game not taking place would have been dire. 

"Looking back now, few people realise just how close we came to the brink of disaster," Gatland wrote in a column for The Telegraph. "What took me by absolute surprise was the level of frustration and anger that boiled over from the players on Monday morning.

"Learning the extent of their frustration was one of the hardest things I had to deal with. I have always prided myself on putting the demands of the players first.

"I was caught in the middle. You want to support the players as much as possible, but you've got to be very careful about how much of the line you cross from that perspective.

"I'm not sure that they had thought about the potential consequences or the long-term effects of the game not going ahead. It would have had such an impact on all rugby in Wales, and potentially led to one or two of the regions going under.

"What hurt me most was hearing a couple of emotive comments from players, second hand, that I didn't care about them. That was the hardest thing because I have always been about putting the players first and looking after them. I just think it was the emotions of the time."

Gatland was eventually able to name his team on Thursday, as Wales look to respond to defeats against Ireland and Scotland in their first two Six Nations contests.

While the 59-year-old is acutely aware of the impact this week's events have had on Wales' preparations, the team are now keen to move on.   

"I am pretty sure I would have easily got a team if I had walked up St Mary Street and asked who was up for beating England. But thankfully we never got that far," Gatland said.

"On Thursday morning I finally named the team. I said it had been a challenging week and we needed to draw a line in the sand and focus entirely on playing against England.

"In fairness to the boys, given what has been going on, they have trained hard and been good in the sessions. It has probably been a welcome distraction to them and I have to take my hat off to them.

"The difficult thing to assess is what impact the mental stress of this week has had on the players. One thing I can promise the Welsh supporters is that the players know how much it means to you. Armageddon or not."

Wales captain Ken Owens said the ordeal had made Welsh rugby "a laughing stock" as he urged the players to pull together in order to get a much-needed result in Cardiff.

Related items

  • Kane in the clear for Euro 2024 after back injury, says Southgate Kane in the clear for Euro 2024 after back injury, says Southgate

    Gareth Southgate has confirmed England captain Harry Kane will be fully fit for Euro 2024, saying the back injury which has kept him out in recent weeks has cleared up.

    Fears were expressed about Kane's chances of featuring in Germany when he missed Bayern Munich's final two games of the Bundesliga season, returning to England to seek treatment on a back problem.

    Kane enjoyed a stunning individual campaign in 2023-24, with no player from Europe's top five leagues bettering his 44 goals in all competitions, though he was unable to end his wait for a first major trophy.

    England will hope that arrives in his new homeland in July, and Southgate is confident Kane will be in peak condition for the tournament. 

    "Kane is pretty much clear now. He is quite relaxed about it. I think a sensible decision was taken not to push for the last game there," Southgate said.

    "Back problems can just happen, but it is not something we are concerned about at this moment in time. 

    "Our understanding of it is that it is something that is pretty much clear now."

    Kane has scored 12 goals across the last three major international tournaments, netting six at the 2018 World Cup, four at Euro 2020 and two at the 2022 World Cup, with Kylian Mbappe the only other European player to equal that haul.

    While Kane's incredible goalscoring feats are yet to be rewarded with silverware, Southgate says his striker is determined to put that right at the Euros.

    "It won't be nice for him and I am sure he will be aware of what people will say about that," Southgate said of Kane's failure to win a trophy with Bayern.

    "But his love for this challenge and desire to make this work has never wavered and he is definitely looking forward to this tournament.

    "He has delivered what we thought he would deliver in terms of goals in that league and I know the club are super happy with what he has done."

  • Southgate envisages central role for 'brilliant' Foden at Euro 2024 Southgate envisages central role for 'brilliant' Foden at Euro 2024

    Gareth Southgate believes Phil Foden's starting position is less important than the spaces he is allowed to attack, pledging to find a way of letting him operate centrally at Euro 2024.

    Foden was included in England's 33-man preliminary squad on Tuesday, and he is expected to be among the first names on the teamsheet after enjoying a fine campaign.

    Foden was named Premier League Player of the Season as he helped Manchester City win an unprecedented fourth straight title, scoring 19 goals and adding seven assists.

    Only three players in the league bettered Foden's goal tally, while he also ranked seventh in the division for chances created (73) and fourth for possession won in the final third (35 times).

    Foden scored two excellent goals as City clinched the title with a 3-1 final-day win over West Ham, drifting infield from the right to find space between the lines and in the penalty area.

    While the presence of Real Madrid's Jude Bellingham and Arsenal's Bukayo Saka has led many to conclude Foden will be stationed on the left in Germany, Southgate is aware of the need to grant him positional freedom.

    "Phil has played off the right, off the left, the key is where he ends up, not his starting position," Southgate said at a press conference on Tuesday.

    "He plays on the left with City, sometimes he stays wide, but he's allowed to drift, and it has always been the same with us. He's allowed to drift. 

    "Then there's where a player has to defend. Jude has played as a 10 all season, and sometimes he has defended on the left for Real Madrid. 

    "It's about where these players arrive and where you allow them to drift, that's the key. I think if you spoke to all of our players, we never pin them to a touchline, that's not how we work so there is that freedom."

    Foden produced a series of talismanic displays for City in the run-in, scoring match-winning hat-tricks against Brentford and Aston Villa and masterminding a vital comeback against Manchester United with two goals in March.

    The 23-year-old stepped up while players like Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland were sidelined through injury, and Southgate has been impressed by his ability to shoulder that responsibility.

    "It's obvious the brilliant season Phil has had, how he stepped up in big games not only when big players have been out but when he's been playing alongside them as well," Southgate added.

    "You want him in central areas as you do one or two others, so we have to find the best way of making that happen."

  • Buttler: England looking to repair dented pride at T20 World Cup Buttler: England looking to repair dented pride at T20 World Cup

    England's white-ball captain Jos Buttler says the team had their pride dented by last year's 50-over World Cup failure, as they look to set things right at the T20 tournament.

    England endured a dismal defence of their ODI title in India last year, failing to make it out of the group stage as they lost six of their nine matches.

    They are desperate for a better showing as they look to retain their 20-over crown at the T20 World Cup in the United States and West Indies, with their opener coming against Scotland on June 4.

    Before then, Buttler's team face Pakistan in a four-match home T20I series, and he has witnessed a determination to respond within the camp.  

    "That pride was obviously dented and it was a really disappointing competition," Buttler recalled.

    "But life moves on, it's a chapter in the book and there's lessons you learn but we're presented with a new opportunity, a different format.

    "We go to the West Indies and want to give a better account of ourselves."

    Headingley is the venue for England's first match against Pakistan on Wednesday, when Jofra Archer could make his first international appearance for over a year.

    The fast bowler has missed the better part of two years with elbow and back issues, but Buttler says he has impressed in training this week.

    "He's bowling quick," Buttler said of Archer. "It was good fun facing him in the nets yesterday, a really good challenge. It's great to see him back."

© 2023 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.