Departing Gatland out for perfect end to 12-year Wales reign

AP

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Warren Gatland has achieved almost everything during his tenure as Wales coach over the last 12 years.

Four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams. A national-record winning streak of 14 matches. A place atop the world rankings for the first time in the rugby-mad country's history, even if only for a week.

Throw in his success as head coach of the British and Irish Lions — a series win in Australia in 2013 followed by a drawn series against the All Blacks in 2017 — and there's only really one major feat that has proved beyond Gatland since taking the reins in December 2007.

Winning the Rugby World Cup.

The 2019 edition in Japan offers the New Zealander one last chance before he returns home to Hamilton to coach the Chiefs in Super Rugby. And it might be Wales' best opportunity since the inception of the World Cup in 1987.

Forget about a couple of warmup losses to England and Ireland this past month; the Welsh are heading to Asia in great shape, mentally as much as physically.

OK, they didn't beat New Zealand in that 14-match winning run from March 2018 to March 2019 which bounced them from No. 8 in the rankings to No. 1. Yet they took down South Africa twice, Australia, England, Ireland, and Argentina.

A team that didn't know how to get over the line in big, tight matches suddenly forgot how to lose. For that, they can largely thank Gatland.

"There's a really special place in my heart for Wales," Gatland said after his last home test in charge of Wales, which unfortunately proved to be a 22-17 loss to Ireland after fielding a weakened lineup.

"I think we've massively overachieved in the last 12 years. And we're not finished yet."

In World Cups under Gatland, the Welsh reached the semifinals in 2011, where they lost to France after playing more than an hour with 14 men following the contentious sending-off of Sam Warburton for a tip tackle. In 2015, Wales got out of a pool containing Australia and ousted host nation England before losing 23-19 to South Africa in the quarterfinals.

Wales' last game before Gatland took over as coach was a humiliating 38-34 loss to Fiji in Nantes in the 2007 World Cup, which eliminated the Dragons in the pool stage.

So much has changed since then, especially the strength in depth in the squad which should leave Wales fans' confident the team can overcome injuries to No. 8 Taulupe Faletau and flyhalf Gareth Anscombe that have ruled them out of the World Cup.

Ross Moriarty provides strong cover for Faletau at No. 8, while Dan Biggar now takes on a huge role at No. 10.

Wales and Australia are the favorites to advance from Pool D, which also includes Fiji, Georgia and Uruguay.

The mercurial Fijians stand out as the other danger, with the Welsh no doubt wary of a repeat of 2007 but also because Fiji is now in the top 10 of the world rankings and seemingly a more cohesive unit than ahead of previous World Cups.

Perhaps crucially, Wales will have 10 days to prepare for Fiji on Oct. 9, which will be the third pool game for Gatland's squad. It will be Fiji's final pool game, coming just six days after a meeting with Georgia.

Get through what could be a grueling pool and Wales will be hardened for the knockout stage, and Gatland's final days at the helm.

How fitting if he goes out as the first Wales coach to win the World Cup.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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