Former Wales captain Matthew Rees has hailed Warren Gatland’s honesty and “massive experience” as key factors behind the World Cup semi-finalists’ bid to be crowned kings of Europe.
Wales will win the RBS Six Nations title and secure a Grand Slam – the second of Gatland’s four-year coaching reign – if they beat Millennium Stadium visitors France on Saturday.
Gatland’s squad has already collected the Triple Crown, and a workmanlike 24-3 victory over Italy has left them one win away from clinching the biggest international prize in northern hemisphere rugby.
Rees was involved in all five games of the 2008 Six Nations campaign, a season when Wales ensured Grand Slam glory by crushing France 29-12 in Cardiff.
He made his comeback after long-standing injury problems against Italy as patient Wales prevailed through second-half tries by centre Jamie Roberts and Alex Cuthbert in a match punctuated by referee George Clancy’s awarding of 25 penalties.
The focus now switches to France and a quickfire World Cup semi-final rematch after Wales suffered an agonising semi-final exit to Les Bleus, losing by a point with 14 men after skipper Sam Warburton was sent off.
Rees is set to win his 50th cap in six days’ time, but he believes Gatland deserves enormous credit for putting Wales within touch of achieving a significant triple prize.
“We all know how successful ‘Gats’ has been as a coach,” Rees said.
“He is as honest as the day is long, and I think that is what you want from a coach. You want him to be honest with you, whether it is right or wrong.
“He has massive experience, he has got a good back-room staff with him and he put the fundamental building blocks in place when he first came here.
“Warren knew it was going to take a couple of years before we actually got any success.
“The way we train is tough, and credit to all the boys for the work that goes in.
“We work hard for each other, and the rewards will come. We showed that in the World Cup, and we’ve shown it in this Six Nations so far.
“No-one’s position in the team is safe, and it is keeping every single player on his toes. I don’t think we have had that sort of strength in depth in the past.
“Warren is his own man and he has got his own ways, and it is working well for us.”
Wales are likely to take the field against France with six players in their starting line-up aged 23 or under, and that is already entrenched as the legacy of this Six Nations campaign.
And it is why Gatland is so enthused about what could lie ahead for his squad building towards World Cup 2015 in England.
“The youngsters coming through don’t fear anything,” Rees added.
“If you look at the back-line in terms of the age, size and physicality, the one thing for us as forwards is as long as we can get them quick ball they are going to be a threat to any team.”