With three of the last four captains now ruled out of the running for France – Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Owens – Gatland now faces a re-think on the leadership front.
“Co-captaincy is a possibility. We did that with Ellis Jenkins and Cory Hill in 2018 and it worked well,” said Gatland.
“It is something I’ve put out there as an option, although it is not guaranteed. We will put a leadership group together and then we will tell the players.
“When I look at the squad, I don’t think there are any guaranteed starters and players will get opportunities. It’s a case of looking at the team, picking the right person as captain and the support they are going to get – or do we potentially go for co-captains who can share that role and responsibility.”
While Gatland admits he is keeping an open mind, he would have no hesitation in opting for a younger player as he did with Sam Warburton back in 2011.
“Yes, absolutely I’d consider a young captain again. We have time for that with the two overseas training camps and then the games in August,” he added.
WALES WORLD CUP CAPTAINS
|2019||Alun Wyn Jones|
“We probably won’t name a captain or captains until we name the squad for France. I feel like it’s a really healthy environment at the moment and I can’t talk more highly about the players and the work they’ve been putting in.
“Mentally we are in a really good place. There’s some real competition from a group of players who have come in and who are really enthusiastic.
“Some of the older players are having to look over their shoulder at the younger ones. The atmosphere in the group, and how they’ve been working together, means there there’s a really good buzz around the squad right now – I’m really, really optimistic.”
This will be the fourth World Cup with Wales for Gatland and he has reached the semi-finals twice and the quarter-final at his previous tournaments. While he freely admits “the Six Nations wasn’t good enough in terms of our expectations”, he remains excited for the future.
“There’s a lot of expectation but we’re punched above our weight in the past. We’ve got some work to do but I’m really excited by this group of players and the work they’re putting in,” he added.
“We should be really proud of what we’ve done in the past, at how hard these guys are working and how much success we’ve had.”
Inevitably, comparisons are being made to the ‘Class of 23’ to the side he took to New Zealand for the 2011 World Cup. There had been a changing of the guard just before then and he gave youth its chance.
For Sam Warburton, George North, Taulupe Faletau and Ken Owens back then, substitute the likes of Dewi Lake, Sam Costelow, Mason Grady, Joe Roberts, Tommy Reffell, Christ Tshiunza, Dafydd Jenkins or Jac Morgan.
“Looking back at 2011, we had won the Grand Slam in 2008, were really unlucky in 2009 and then found there was a group of players coming towards the end in 2010,” recalled Gatland.
“We made changes and brought in those youngsters in. The players we brought in made an impression and they were brilliant.
“We lost that first game against South Africa, although I’m still convinced James Hook’s penalty went over, and then we were under the pump. We played a really good Samoan team, and we were down at half-time.
“I went down into the changing room and Sam Warburton had the players in a huddle, telling them ‘we’re not going home after all the work and effort we’ve put in’.
“’We haven’t done all this hard graft, and been through all that pain in Poland, to go home’. As a coach, I knew I didn’t have to say anything after that.
“We went out in the second-half and played well, Shane Williams scored a great try, and we won. If we’d lost that, we’d have been out of the World Cup and wouldn’t have had the chance to play Ireland in the quarter-final.
“From there, we probably should have made the final of the World Cup, but we all know what happened against France.“
Gatland also took Ireland to the 1999 World Cup and currently has 23 games under his belt at the global competition. If anyone knows what is needed to progress in the tournament, he does!
“There has been no judgement on the training squad as yet, I’m not looking too far ahead. I just want to give everyone an equal opportunity to impress over the next few weeks at the camps and in the warm-up games,” he added.
“Then we’ll sit down and make a decision on what the squad is going to look like. It’s important for me not to have too many opinions at this stage and just to tell the players they have a chance to impress and to go and make the most of it.
“It’s down to them to impress the coaches and make us select them.”