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Page last updated at 13:29 GMT, Friday, 11 March 2011

Gatland the great?

Six Nations: WALES v IRELAND
Venue: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff Date: Sat, 12 March Kick-off: 1700 GMT
Coverage: Watch live on BBC One Wales, BBC One HD and online from 1635-1900; Listen on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru & BBC Radio 5 Live; Text commentary on BBC Sport website and mobiles

Wales coach Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland is set to take charge of his 36th Test as Wales coach

By Bruce Pope
BBC Sport Wales

Who would be your choice as Wales' greatest rugby coach?

John Dawes, Clive Rowlands perhaps, Graham Henry? Mike Ruddock on the strength of that 2005 Grand Slam season? Carwyn James as the greatest Welsh coach, if not a Wales one?

While current head coach Warren Gatland might not get too many votes if that poll was held today, despite his 2008 Grand Slam success, in terms of longevity he is about to become Wales' outright leader.

Come Saturday's clash with Ireland in Cardiff, Gatland will have taken charge of Wales in more Test matches than any other coach.

The Six Nations encounter will be the 36th time Gatland has overseen internationals proceedings for Wales, beating the mark of 35 set by Alan Davies in the early 1990s.

The shelf-life of a Wales coach rarely stretches beyond five years, with Rowlands' 29-Test reign from 1968-74 the longest in chronological terms, although there were also plenty of non-cap internationals in his time.

Wales v Ireland matches have traditionally been all-action affairs
Wales v Ireland matches have traditionally been all-action affairs

Gatland was appointed in December 2007 on a contract that would take him up the end of the 2011 World Cup.

But last October he signed a new deal that takes the 47-year-old through to the end of the 2015 tournament - a date that would see Gatland become Wales' longest-serving coach by some distance.

His record reads won 16, lost 18 with one draw, and the recent lack of victories has occasionally drawn grumblings from public, media and former players.

But Gatland's mantra has always been about performance and playing the best, and the stats look less damaging when you realise that 12 of Gatland's 18 defeats have come against the Tri-Nations sides.

Considering Wales have only beaten New Zealand three times in 106 years and South Africa once in 105 years, Gatland's five losses apiece to these two heavyweights come as little surprise.

There does seem to be progress, though, as in their last three reversals to the Springboks, Wales' margin of defeat has been 29-25, 34-31 and 20-15, offering encouragement for their World Cup pool encounter in Wellington next September.

However, Gatland has freely admitted he expects to be sacked if he does not guide Wales to at least the quarter-finals in his native New Zealand.

The presence of a World Cup in a year always tends to raise the chances of some poor incumbent departing the hot-seat.

A tricky Pool D containing South Africa, Samoa, Fiji and Namibia will allow Wales little room for slip-ups.

But before all that, Gatland has the pressing task of inspiring his troops to end a six-Test winless run at home if he is not to claim a second, unwanted, record.

Wales' worst home run was set between 1989 and 1991 when they went seven Tests without a win in Cardiff - eight games if you count the non-cap loss to the Barbarians at the old National Stadium in October 1990.

Unfortunately for the men in red, their opponents on Saturday have made the Welsh capital a home from home.

Ireland have lost only once in Cardiff since 1983, winning 10 games and drawing one in their past 12 visits, while provincial powers Munster have also made hay in the Millennium Stadium with their Heineken Cup final triumphs in 2006 and 2008.

Ireland's last visit to Cardiff in 2009 saw them claim a first Grand Slam in 61 years, with a nail-biting 17-15 win courtesy of a late Ronan O'Gara drop-goal.

Gatland has enjoyed that winning feeling in the fixture, but that was when he was Ireland coach and the visitors triumphed 36-6 in 2001.

Butler's Wales v Ireland official guide

That was shortly before he was replaced by Eddie O'Sullivan as Ireland coach, the man Gatland had originally appointed as his assistant.

Wales-Ireland encounters have always been fierce affairs, but the enmity between the two coaches added an extra layer of tension to these Celtic clashes before O'Sullivan made way for Declan Kidney in 2008.

On the pitch there has been little quarter asked or given. Throw in the fact that the winner of Saturday's match will keep alive hopes of claiming the Championship and we should be set for another fire-cracker.

A win for Ireland will leave their destiny in their own hands as they host Grand Slam-chasing England - who play Scotland at Twickenham on Sunday - in Dublin in the final round of games.

Victory in that final round would certainly then claim the Triple Crown and might be good enough for the title, although England's points advantage after their 59-13 rout of Italy is significant.

A win for Wales will maintain momentum after the victories in Scotland and Italy, and set up a potential Championship decider away to France next Saturday, if either Scotland or Ireland can derail England's title charge.

Whatever the result, Gatland's stock is sufficiently high that he should be secure until at least the World Cup, which will decide if he marches further on in the Wales record books.

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see also
Wales 19-13 Ireland
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Phillips critics backed by Howley
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Hook urged to take his chance
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Hook enjoys playmaking role
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Irish foul play a worry - Gatland
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Jones proud of Wales cap landmark
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Gatland hints at Jones comeback
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Halfpenny reveals hunger for win
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Hook handed Wales fly-half shirt
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Ireland unchanged for Wales clash
08 Mar 11 |  Irish
Edwards wary of Irish try threat
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Gatland concedes Wales sack fear
23 Jan 11 |  Welsh
Ireland coach replaced
30 Nov 01 |  Rugby Union
Wales' rugby fixtures
26 Jun 07 |  Welsh
Wales rugby results archive
15 Oct 03 |  Welsh
BBC Sport Wales coverage
03 Oct 11 |  Wales

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