If Warren Gatland were a Game of Thrones character, he’d be Daenerys Targaryen. Played by English actress Emilia Clarke, she is heralded as the ‘Mother of Dragons’ in the hit TV show – she walked into a blazing fire in season one and emerged not only unburnt, but with three hatched baby dragons as her children.
And New Zealand native Gatland could well be crowned the ‘Father of Dragons’ for the role he has played in nurturing and moulding this young and exciting Welsh squad that seems destined for greatness, even though their paternal leader will leave them to fend for themselves later this year when he departs after the World Cup.
The youthful exuberance of this current crop is not the only reason for bestowing the nickname upon Gatland. Despite being a Kiwi, an outsider, he is very much a central figure in this Welsh set-up, indeed in Welsh rugby history.
For no one individual – certainly off the field – even comes close to the impact the 55-year-old has had on the nation in its 137-year existence.
Although the Welsh Rugby Union was established in 1881 and a first-ever international was played later that year against famous old foes England, Wales did not have their first proper coach until David Nash’s appointment in 1967.
Since then Gatland’s effect on the Dragons has been most stark. He is the only man to have led Wales for more than 100 games (109), with his 56 victories dwarfing the next highest figure of 20 posted by compatriot Graham Henry, who was in charge from 1998-2002.
He has been in the role twice as long as the next longest servant, Clive Rowlands (1968-74). Alan Davies, meanwhile, who was coach from 1991-95, oversaw the second most games, 35.
Gatland led Wales for an unprecedented 109th time against France on Friday as the 2019 Six Nations – his last in charge – got under way in Paris.
It will soon be the end of an era for Wales. The Hamilton-born man will relinquish his 12-year reign on his Dragons after the World Cup in Japan.
But rather than looking at the future with skepticism as Gatland, as well as assistants Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards also sever ties, Welsh rugby fans should look to the horizon with hope and excitement. For there is much to get excited about.
There is a tantalising mix of youth and experience in a talented squad Gatland has picked for an assault on the Six Nations as he looks to bow out with a fourth title of his tenure.
Captain Alun-Wyn Jones, who is somehow still only 33 and the only surviving member of Gatland’s first game in charge – a rousing 26-19 triumph over England in the first week of the 2008 Six Nations – remains a force of nature.
Full-back Leigh Halfpenny remains one of the finest kickers in the game, Jonathan Davies’ return from lengthy injury is a welcome one – the Scarlets centre is arguably Wales’ most talent-rich player.
Ken Owens’ best years have come at the latter part of his career, Justin Tipuric is one of the best all-round forwards in international rugby, while 10-cap Hadleigh Parkes – who only earned his Wales debut aged 30 in the 2017 autumn internationals – has fitted seamlessly into the Welsh midfield.
That’s without even mentioning the likes of players who have in excess of 50 caps – George North, Liam Williams, Dan Biggar and Scott Williams – yet are still aged 26-29. And we’ve bypassed the fact Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts are recently retired.
With that as a solid base, throw the likes of emerging stars Thomas Young (26), Ross Moriarty, Steff Evans, Tomos Williams (all 24), Josh Adams and Adam Beard (both 23) into the mix.
Only six players in this squad are over 30. Only England (four) have fewer veterans in their 2019 Six Nations contingent.
Wales are also finally playing an attractive, attacking brand of rugby under Gatland, having firmly moved on from the ‘Warrenball’ tactics of crash ball. Wingers Evans and Adams are livewires while the return of Davies in the midfield gives the back line a player who reads the game like an American football quarterback.
So, although the sun is very much setting on Gatland’s time in charge, and while there is plenty of sentiment going around for what he has done for Welsh rugby, there is little sadness.
This Welsh side is set up for a new era. Wayne Pivac is primed to replace his compatriot and the current Scarlets tactician, who will become Wales’ fourth Kiwi coach, could not ask for much more in terms of an ideal handover.
Two of Wales’ Six Nations titles under Gatland have yielded Grand Slams, but they enter his final tournament looking for a first trophy in six years and with reigning champions Ireland and England – the only two winners in the intervening years – slightly more favoured.
But aside from wanting to send their fatherly figure off with a fourth Six Nations trophy of his reign, they also come into the tournament with plenty of momentum. Wales’ wonderful winning streak now stands at 10 following a battling victory in Paris. They haven’t tasted defeat since losing to Ireland midway through last year’s tournament.
Win one more and they will equal the country’s longest run of successive wins, 11, stretching back to 1910.
If Italy fall next week, then Wales will have the chance to set a new record of 12 wins against England in Cardiff on February 23.
Achieve that and the Father of Dragons might just be able to convince people he can walk through fire unscathed too.
The Six Nations is upon us once again, with the arguably the most stellar rugby competition outside the Rugby World Cup beginning in Paris on Friday with France welcoming Wales.
Ireland v England in Dublin is the standout fixture on opening weekend, while Scotland also welcome perennial whipping boys Italy to Murrayfield.
Some say it’s the most open tournament in years, with reigning champions Ireland, fresh off the back of their immense victory over New Zealand in the autumn, England and Wales in with a shout of glory, while Scotland will hope to continue their upswing in form.
There’s even more impetus on teams and players to perform this year as they tune up for the World Cup in Japan towards the end of the year.
There’s a thriving and knowledgeable expatriate rugby community here in the UAE, and we’ve scoured the Emirates to find you experts representing all six countries, putting four questions to them; who will win, who will finish bottom, who is the player to watch and who will score the most tries.
Here are their answers:
STEPHEN FERGUSON (IRELAND)
Dubai Exiles lock
Champions: Ireland. The form the four provinces have shown in Europe, and the fact they are the highest-tier nation in the competition, just says it all. Grand Slam in RWC year.
Wooden spoon: Italy. The other five nations are still miles ahead of them, but I hope they get a wee upset somewhere.
Player to watch: I said it last year and I’ll say it again, Jacob Stockdale. The man is frightening on the attack, a massive ball carrier with skill to back it up.
Top tryscorer: Stockdale. As above, but his finishing has been world class for the last year. Tip him to do some damage over the next 10 months.
BORIS FINCK (FRANCE)
Dubai Hurricanes scrum-half
Champions: Ireland. Having had a run of impressive wins during the autumn Tests including a win against the All Blacks, Ireland are going into the tournament with some good momentum I’d say. Their opening match versus England should be an interesting one, with both teams considered favourites to win.
Wooden spoon: Italy. Although Italy are improving from year to year and bagging wins v France and Scotland not so long ago, they are still trailing behind in some key aspects of the game.
Player to watch: Jacob Stockdale has been impressive both at club and international level recently and was also top tryscorer in the tournament last year, and should hopefully bring some brilliance again this year.
Romain Ntamack makes his debut for France this weekend, let’s see if he can live up to his father’s potential.
Top tryscorer: I hate to say it, but probably someone like Jonny May. Always seems to find himself crossing the white wash.
CRAIG NUTT (WALES)
Abu Dhabi Harlequins prop/player-coach
Champions: I think Wales might do it you know. I think they have a great chance even though they are massively under the radar at the moment. If you had to say though, Ireland are favorites again this time, they’re a great team. Anyone but England, really.
Wooden spoon: Italy. It will be again be the Azzurri, I’m sure. I don’t think they will win a game. They’re way behind the rest of the teams in the Six Nations.
Player to watch: Ken Owens. Playing really well in Wales at the moment and I’m sure he will have a massive Six Nations this year.
Top tryscorer: Going for Garry Ringrose. A fantastic player and Ireland will be scoring lots of points I’m sure.
HAMISH RUSSELL (SCOTLAND)
Jebel Ali Dragons team manager
Champions: Ireland: 2019 could just be their year. A Six Nation’s/World Cup double is not out of the question. Key players in key positions ensure they control and close out games against the toughest opponents.
Wooden spoon: Italy. I would love to say England but Italy it is, there is simply a lack of depth in quality players. 12 wooden spoons out of 18, not won a game since 2015, only won two top-flight internationals since 2015…need I go on?
Player to watch: Romain Ntamack. Interesting to see if Finn Russell, Maro Itoje, Tadgh Furlong etc. bring their club form into the tournament and apart from watching Owen Farrell’s tackling methods, French teenager Ntamack has some guile and is one to be watched.
Top tryscorer: Jonny May. Let’s keep the forwards out of this. It can come down to who scores the most tries against Italy. Jacob Stockdale will be there again, but Jonny May is the best opportunist finisher in the tournament.
LUCA MENE (ITALY)
Abu Dhabi Saracens winger
Champions: It’s going to be between England and Ireland, even though the other teams have also improved. I still see it as a two-team race. My final vote goes for Ireland, I’m expecting they can keep the level shown against the All Blacks.
Wooden spoon: Italy. I’m sorry to vote once again against my own country. I really hope I will get it wrong.
Player to watch: Sergio Parisse. This is probably going to be his last Six Nations. I’m sure he wants to finish with a high and he will be outstanding.
Top tryscorer: Stuart Hogg. Just an amazing player and I’m sure he’s going to have another amazing Six Nations.
MIKE WOLFF (ENGLAND)
Dubai Exiles chairman
Champions: Ireland. High on confidence (too high I hope), superbly coached, fixture list to their advantage, and squad depth to die for.
Wooden spoon: Italy. Just not moving forwards and haven’t been for years. Time for Georgia to join the 7 Nations?
Player to watch: Manu Tuilagi. If he can stay fit and bring his recent Leicester form to the party he will terrorise some defenses.
Top tryscorer: Jacob Stockdale or Jonny May. Different style of players, but game breakers in their own ways.
Josh Navidi will adopt a “bigger they are, harder they fall” approach when the Wales’ forwards face a juggernaut French pack in Friday’s Six Nations opener.
Les Bleus will field an eight with a combined weight of just over 150 stones, spearheaded by prop Uini Atonio (22st 7lbs) and lock Paul Willemse (21st 3lbs).
And Wales know they cannot budge an inch during what could be a right old rumble at Stade de France.
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall,” Wales flanker Navidi said.
“It is the same when we play regional rugby – we know they are going to be big and physical and the back-line will have a lot of flair.
“You just know what is coming – a lot of drives and stuff. We know how big they are and we have to try and match them physically.
“I played (for Cardiff Blues) against Montpellier, probably four years ago. They had one of the biggest packs I have played against. You have to try and match them, getting off the line and getting in their faces.
“You cannot let them come to you and give them a rolling start. We know we need to move their pack around the field, and I hope we can do that by moving the ball and tiring them out.”
Navidi, 28, was a stand-out Wales player last season, delivering one high-class display after another.
But he has not featured in the Test arena since Wales beat France last March, missing his country’s autumn series clean sweep this term because of injury.
Navidi teams up with Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty in the Wales back-row, having a pivotal role to play as Warren Gatland’s men chase a 10th successive victory against all opponents.
Dragons number eight Moriarty has not played since mid-December after being sidelined with concussion, but he will bring abrasiveness and considerable physicality to a contest that will be no place for the faint-hearted.
“He is a physical character,” Navidi added. “His ball-carrying and defence work show how physical he is. I like that part of his game.
“He is nitty-gritty, and what he does, he does well. To not play for six weeks and come into a game like this one is quite impressive.
“He is a world-class player, and I am sure when Friday comes he is ready to go. The six weeks out will not make a difference to him.”
And Navidi has also backed Blues colleague – scrum-half Tomos Williams – to thrive when he features for the first time in a Six Nations game.
Williams, who made his Test debut last summer, has been preferred to the more experienced Scarlets number nine Gareth Davies as the only back division change following Wales’ victory over South Africa 10 weeks ago.
“Tomos is a livewire, a threat off the base (of the scrum) as well,” Navidi said.
“He has got flair and is quite aggressive for a scrum-half. It is good when your nine is a bit fiery. He can tie in extra defenders.”
Wales have beaten France on six of the countries’ last seven meetings, including two victories in Paris, which augers well for a campaign that many observers feel will be a three-way title battle between Wales, Ireland and England.