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Can Warren Gatland avoid the pre-World Cup Welsh curse?

By Gareth Roberts
BBC Wales Sport

Warren Gatland poses with the Six Nations trophy at this year's tournament launch
A second Six Nations title would cement Gatland's position

Warren Gatland has already helped Wales kick a few bad habits and achieved a great deal since taking over as head coach a little over two years ago.

But the tough-talking New Zealander, who won a Grand Slam at the first attempt in 2008, could have his work cut out if he is to avoid the fate of the vast majority of his predecessors.

Remaining in charge of a nation with a volatile history of sacking their figurehead in the build-up to World Cups would be a notable entry on his CV when he updates it after the 2011 edition in his homeland.

But the pitfalls lying ahead in this season's RBS Six Nations remain as potent as those that ended the hopes of six of his predecessors.

John Ryan (1990), Ron Waldron (1991), Alan Davies (1995), Kevin Bowring (1998), Graham Henry (2002) and Mike Ruddock (2006) were all either sacked or resigned in the periods before World Cups.

Only Tony Gray - the man who guided Wales to their best finish of third at the inaugural World Cup in 1987 - succeeded in staying in situ for the tournament, and even he departed the following year following an ill-fated tour to New Zealand.

Davies (1991) and Henry (1999) did coach Wales at World Cups early in their reigns, but each departed following poor results in the Five/Six Nations, and failed to make it to the next global jamboree.

Jamie Roberts powers through the Scotland defence in last year's Six Nations
Can Jamie Roberts rediscover the verve of last season?

Like Henry in the aftermath of the 2001 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, Gatland - who coached the Lions forwards in South Africa last summer - has to manage a worrying number of star players left jaded by the experience.

Jamie Roberts is the obvious example. A powerhouse on his introduction to the Six Nations last season and the Lions' man-of-the-series against the Springboks, the Cardiff Blues centre has been subdued this season.

Team-mate Leigh Halfpenny, after a sparkling first season in Test rugby led to a Lions call-up, has scored only one try for his region this term.

On the other wing, Shane Williams is short of game-time after spending most of the last two months recovering from a hamstring tear suffered in defeat by Australia in November.

Fellow 2009 Lions Mike Phillips, Martyn Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees, Adam Jones, Lee Byrne, James Hook, Stephen Jones and Andy Powell have all suffered varying degrees of injury disruption this season, as has 2005 Lion Tom Shanklin.

Phillips remains sidelined by a foot injury, and Rees was a late withdrawal, but the others are all fit to start the Six Nations.

But scrum-half remains an issue. There is confusion over Dwayne Peel's groin injury, which has ruled him out of Wales' opener against England even if his club, Sale, say he should be fit to play for them against Bath on Saturday.

The Holy Hooker

The man chosen to start at Twickenham, Gareth Cooper, may have been a Lion in 2005 but a dip in form this season has seen Richie Rees - who is on the Wales bench - overtake him for a starting sport with the Blues.

Against this less than encouraging backdrop, Gatland must also cope with the expectations of a nation whose appetite was whetted by Grand Slams in 2005 and 2008.

The latter came under his command at the first time of asking and the euphoria it created has the potential to create a dangerous legacy if there are no signs that his team are capable of re-scaling such heights.

Former England centre and BBC pundit Jeremy Guscott is among those who believes Gatland must oversee a tactical overhaul after a year in which they became all-too-predictable.

"I would love to see Wales go out and play brilliant rugby, but listening to Warren Gatland, he's telling them to kick the ball more," Guscott told BBC Sport Wales' Scrum V programme.

"If Wales come out and play with the attitude we'll score seven tries, England are only going to score three, they will win.

"But if it's close, if the nerves get the better of them and they tighten up, England will win."

2008: Played 11 Won 7 Lost 4
2009: Played 11 Won 7 Lost 4
Total: P 22 W 14 (63.6%) L 8

Guscott has a point. By the time Australia strode out of Cardiff with a 33-12 November victory, Wales looked like a team struggling to live up to their attacking reputation following a gutsy effort in defeat by New Zealand and unconvincing wins against Samoa and Argentina.

All that could change if varying periods of enforced rest have left Wales' front-line players refreshed, eager and sharp again.

But with Martyn Williams (34), Shane Williams (32), Stephen Jones (32) and Tom Shanklin (30) all edging towards the end of their Test careers, a period of transition is not far off for Wales.

That is just another scenario with which Gatland must wrestle as he contemplates the 2011 World Cup.

If he feels that any of that quartet will not make it to New Zealand, the likes of Sam Warburton, Tom James, Dan Biggar and Andrew Bishop could find themselves gaining more Test experience in the coming weeks and months.

But that can only happen if results - and performances - go Gatland's way at the start of the Six Nations.

If not, Welsh rugby's future can wait until Gatland secures his.

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see also
Wales hit by Jenkins injury blow
04 Feb 10 |  Welsh
Byrne in clear for England game
02 Feb 10 |  Rugby Union
Guscott questions Welsh mentality
01 Feb 10 |  Welsh
Wales head back to drawing board
30 Nov 09 |  Welsh
Gatland considers creative spark
30 Nov 09 |  Welsh
Ruddock sends out warning to WRU
20 Mar 08 |  Welsh
Wales' rugby coaches
29 Mar 06 |  Welsh
Ruddock steps down as Wales coach
14 Feb 06 |  Internationals
Henry walks away from Wales
06 Feb 02 |  International
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
Coming up next on Scrum V...
03 Nov 08 |  Welsh
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales

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