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Premiership Rugby

Gatland eyes the season ahead

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

"We're obviously all happy with what we achieved last season but that's for the record books now, we're facing a new challenge this year and are planning accordingly," said Gatland at the launch of the Zurich Premiership.

"Everyone will be out to get us so we are not thinking about defending our title just yet – right now it's all about getting some consistency going."

Indeed, as Harlequins showed after squeaking past Wasps 33-27 on Saturday, the chance to scalp the champions will provide plenty of motivational ammunition for all the pretenders to their throne.

"It's going to be tough for us – consistency is the key but that's going to be difficult with four of our players off at the World Cup."

It could be argued that all teams are in the same position with regards to Australia-bound absentees but you can't help but think that Wasps have suffered a more serious sting than the rest of the pack.

The loss of the talismanic presence of England's Lawrence Dallaglio has made Wasps look considerably weaker in the past and now he takes his leave along with back-row partner Joe Worsley, centre Stuart Abbott, full-back Josh Lewsey and wing Kenny Logan.

Factor in the loss of Alex King to injury whilst on national duty and it looks horribly like the back-bone has been ripped out of the championship-winning side.

But Gatland, the former Waikato hooker and Ireland coach, is not a man to dwell on the negatives.

"The selections could have been worse for us," he said. "The bonus for the club – though it's a massive disappointment for him – is the non-selection of Simon Shaw. That's really going to strength out tight five. I really feel for him personally but it's a massive plus point for the club."

Garland showed his polished man-management skills by excusing the dejected lock from the Harlequins game, telling him to go and console himself with a few beers. Shaw responded in a way that would have please the competitor in Gatland, declaring himself available for selection before putting in a massive performance.

Another reason for Gatland to be cheerful is the fact that club captain Rob Howley – still regarded as one of the all-time great scrum-halves – won't be travelling more that 200 miles from Wasps' newly-named Causeway Stadium all season.

"When you have world class players and world class leaders and decision makers like Rob at your disposal there's nothing much I can do as a coach to making them any better," joked the coach.

"All they need is fine-tuning and they contribute so much to the team. When Rob is playing well he's a huge influence. Nothing epitomised that more than the way he played in the Zurich Premiership final."

Ah yes, the final. Wasps crushed rivals Gloucester by 39-9 to take home the cup but many commentators felt that the league's revised format cheated the losing finalists of the recognition they deserved for finish the season on top of the table, a full 15 points clear of their eventual victors.

This view is clearly not one held by Gatland who rounded on the critics who suggested that all Wasps had done was to win a merge 100-metre dash after having lost a more weighty marathon.

"I still don't know why everyone goes on about the structure so much. Most rugby nations work to a similar pattern – who doubts the outcome of the Super 12s?" asked Gatland.

"It's just the football mentality that we have in this country that frustrates me. I can understand that the [table system] has been the tradition for many years but personally I find it incredibly boring.

"Four or five games into the football season and already one or two teams are in contention for the championship, one or two are fighting relegation and the other teams are just sitting there in the middle of the table. For me the football season is pretty much decided and I don't know how you can get excited about that.

"I don't think we can really criticise this league – it's a great competition. There are world class players in every team and all the clubs are capable of beating each other on their day."

By Andy Jackson

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