The Kiwi has returned from the Rugby World Cup with his stock enhanced after Wales reached the semi-finals and, while confirming that Gethin Jenkins will miss the opening matches of the tournament and stand-off Rhys Priestland could also miss Scotland’s visit to Cardiff on the second weekend, he is confident that Wales will be a Six Nations contender.
But when asked about Scotland’s chances he was typically candid, stating that he believed they would open with a Murrayfield victory over England and head to Cardiff in confident mode, while insisting that they would be “limited” with Dan Parks at stand-off.
Parks lost his place in the World Cup to Ruaridh Jackson but the 23-year-old Glasgow stand-off has only appeared fleetingly since returning from the tournament due to the hamstring injury he suffered early in the final pool game against England. He is returning to training this week but cannot be considered due to his lack of game-time, which leaves Parks vying with Greig Laidlaw and the uncapped Duncan Weir.
“He will go with Parks,” said Gatland confidently. “And I’d expect them to play Sean Lamont in the midfield and go with more of a kicking game.
“With Dan he’ll have to use Lamont to get across the gain-line and perhaps play the corners more. You can only play with the cards you’re dealt. Scotland tried to play rugby in the World Cup and are definitely a more dangerous team, but they are still a little limited and struggle to score tries.
“It’s not through a lack of trying. Scotland have a very good forward pack and a lot of competition, so Andy has a few choices up front. In the backs he just lacks a little of the X-Factor and I think Tim Visser will make a difference when he becomes available for Scotland.”
Yet, Gatland remains sure that the Calcutta Cup will be left in Scotland for the first time in four years.
“I believe Scotland have a great chance of beating England,” said. “I think England will get better as the tournament goes on, but there will be a few youngsters playing their first Calcutta Cup game at Murrayfield and, with the hostility that that brings, they may be a little bit short.
“It’s definitely the best time for anyone to get England, first-up with a new coaching set-up, new players coming in, inevitably a bit disorganised and so a bit vulnerable, and at home is great for Scotland.
“And that sets them up for coming to us. We under- estimated Scotland a bit two years ago and nearly got caught with our pants down. They probably should have won that game, but we got out of jail in the last ten minutes.
“Last year we went up to Scotland well prepared, thinking ‘don’t make the same mistake as we did in 2010’ and played well in the first half and then shut the door in the second and didn’t let Scotland get back into the game. So, we know we have to do that again and not make the same mistakes we made at home two years ago.
“In the four years I’ve been involved with Wales in this tournament we’ve won four times against Scotland, but there is no doubt that they are a more dangerous team now and, if they don’t pick up too many injuries, they are going to be a tough team to beat.”
The opening games will be significant for both coaches, not least when set against the intriguing sub-text that will run through this championship, of which of Gatland, Robinson or Declan Kidney will be chosen at its conclusion to lead the British and Irish Lions in 2013.
Gatland knows the value of a good start with victories over Ireland and Scotland liable to put him into pole position, while two for Robinson will hand him the honour. Gatland added: “All the focus for us all is just one the first game. This competition is all about momentum and confidence and, if you can win your first game and get on a little bit of a roll, you get that self-belief and become very hard to beat.
“Andy’s very well aware of that having played himself in the Five Nations and coached England and Scotland, and so he knows that, if they can win that first game, they can have a good championship. We’re thinking the same, that if we can go to Ireland and get a good result then it sets us up for a good championship, but if we and Scotland win it sets up a great match in Cardiff.
“I think the three Celtic nations will be strong this year. We all have a bit of stability in terms of our clubs and coaching set-ups, while England, France and Italy have new coaching teams and it takes a little time to get used to new voices and ideas.
“Ireland are riding on the crest of a wave with the way their provinces are playing, it’s good for us that the Blues are in the quarter-finals and, for the first time in a long time, a Scottish side is in the quarter-finals and that does have an impact on the national side as well.”