Liam Williams Rugby World Cup 2019: Warren Gatland leaves Wales with the respect he’s always deserved

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A couple of minutes after the final whistle, Warren Gatland got up from his position in the stands and strolled down to the side of the pitch. There, he was greeted by a tableau of riotous colour and frenetic bustle. On the field, the two sets of players were congratulating and commiserating with handshakes and hugs. On the sidelines, the South African coaches were dancing a little victory reel. The officials were carrying out their final checks. Meanwhile, several thousand TV people were scurrying around, erecting their sponsored canvases and hoisting lighting equipment into position. And so, for a short while, Gatland stood alone, gathering his thoughts in the Yokohama night.

What was going through his mind during those few precious moments? Was he still picking over those final minutes: Rhys Patchell failing with a drop goal attempt, Dillon Lewis piling in at the side, Handre Pollard slotting over the critical penalty, those agonising last seconds as South Africa imperiously snuffed out the game? Was he distraught? Rueful? Proud? Strangely liberated? Perhaps, as anybody who has stared straight into sport’s cruel abyss will tell you, it was a mixture of all of them, and nothing at all.

“There’s no in between after a game,” Gatland once wrote. “It’s either agony or ecstasy. You’re in a lonely place because you’re hurting.” And if losing a regular game is a lonely feeling, then losing a World Cup semi-final, must be a different world of pain and desolation. The fact that his team played with heart and resilience and passion and endurance will not be a consolation. Nor will those three Grand Slams, those 19 consecutive victories in competitive matches, the fact that he took a small nation from No 10 to No 1 in the world. Not yet, at any rate. Not while the wounds are still weeping.

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By the time he stepped into his press conference a few minutes later, the colour had still not returned to his cheeks. In a low, respectful voice he congratulated the victorious South Africans, talked about being “proud of the boys”, paid tribute to the squad’s “hard work”. But you could see his heart was really somewhere else. Unless you were listening extremely carefully, you’d scarcely have known if this was his last game in charge of Wales, or his first. 

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