Gatland's 12-year tenure at Wales ended on Friday with the 40-17 loss to New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup bronze match. He leaves a legacy that has more to do with perception than presentations. Gatland took over Wales in December 2007, inheriting a team in a slump after a pool-stage elimination at the World Cup, including losing to Fiji. It was close to rock bottom for a proud rugby nation. But he's returning to his native New Zealand with Welsh rugby in a much better place.
"I really hope for what we've achieved in the last 10 to 12 years — and we feel we've earned respect and put respect back into Wales as an international team — that the new coaches coming in continue to build on that," Gatland said. "Because what we've done, what we've achieved, it would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums."
While Gatland and his assistants Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley, and Robin McBryde are vacating, new coach Wayne Pivac will have practically the entire squad, including inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones, to defend the Six Nations title from February.
"They're a great bunch of men to work with," Gatland said. "They never complain about how hard they train and work. If you ask them to run through a brick wall, they'll ask, 'What do you want me to do when I get to the other side?'
"For such a small playing nation, we have to really push ourselves hard because we don't have the depth. You've just got to wring the sponge as dry as you possibly can." The former All Blacks hooker and schoolteacher drew on his experiences to inspire confidence and persuade players to play above themselves. He brought back to Wales the mindset of fighting to the last whistle, and accepting no limits, all the while motivating and managing the players in his inimitable, often humorous, way.
Gatland pushed the Welsh to heights they hadn't been to since their 1970s heyday. With a deep base of fitness and a game plan that fit their skills, he made the Welsh regular title contenders from his first match in charge, a win over England in 2008. Only beating New Zealand escaped him, but then that's escaped every Wales coach since 1963.
"When you've got someone so confident at the top of the tree, that filters down and it's hard to ignore," Alun Wyn Jones said. "We've come under some pressure over the years, when it has been backs against the wall, and it takes a certain type of character to come through the mire. He's pretty much the guy who has done that."
In three World Cups, Gatland led Wales to two semifinals split by a quarterfinal. This run was ended by South Africa 19-16 five days ago. An injury-hit Wales couldn't quite get to its first final with its brand of tight, territorial, and direct rugby that doesn't leave any room for error, while absorbing pressure and punishing mistakes.
New Zealand coach Steve Hansen, a previous coach of Wales, described Gatland as an ultimate competitor. "Wales had had adversity, but he came in and has molded them," Hansen said. "He brought good staff with him and built a team that's become very, very competitive. They were No. 1 before the World Cup, which speaks for itself."
Others were also full of praise for Gatland's contributions. Flyhalf Rhys Patchell said he had an uncanny ability to understand what his players needed. "Whether somebody needs an arm around the shoulder, needs their tires pumped up, or if someone needs a pin to take a bit out of them to give them a bit of a rocket for the weekend," he said. Asked to sum up in three words what Gatland had done for Wales, he said: "He's changed expectations."
Neil Jenkins, a former Wales and British and Irish Lions flyhalf and assistant coach under Gatland, didn't need three words. "I'll just give you one: Incredible. He's (on) a different level as far as I'm concerned," Jenkins said.
"We think we can beat anyone on any given day, anywhere in the world. Being Welsh, that's not something that is easily achieved, because we're not really like that — we tend to prefer to go under the radar a little bit and we're a bit shy in that sense.
"There's a belief (now) that no matter where you are, no matter who you're playing against, you have the ability to win." Gatland was returning home to coach the Chiefs in Super Rugby, but would be back to watch and scout Wales and the rest for the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa.
He believed Pivac, a fellow New Zealander, can improve Wales. "It's difficult," he said. "I know how tough it is to win Six Nations, and you can't be too greedy and expect to win it every year. It's also about being as competitive as we can against the other top nations. We feel we have done that, and I really want Wales to continue to build on that."
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