The inside story of the most ruthless sacking in Welsh rugby history

Certain moments are ingrained in Welsh rugby infamy.

A 96-13 thrashing by South Africa in Pretoria in 1998. World Cup defeats in Cardiff to Samoa, 50-point hidings by England and New Zealand.

The humbling defeat to Fiji in Nantes that sent Wales home from the 2007 World Cup is right up there near the top of the list, too.

But that game, and what happened next, set the course for the next decade of Welsh rugby as it ushered in the Warren Gatland golden era of Grand Slams, World Cup brilliance, record crowds and a nation united and enthralled.

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Within 24 hours of Wales losing to minnows Fiji, before the team had even left their tournament HQ in southern Brittany, Jenkins had been dismissed by the Welsh Rugby Union.

The powerbrokers weren’t exactly hanging about, it was to be dubbed the most ruthless sacking in Welsh rugby history. Players even spoke of their sympathy for their suddenly ex-coach who had to get off the team bus upon arrival back at the Vale hotel and trudge down the road on his own, suitcase in one hand, duty free bags in the other.

He cut a forlorn figure.

No-one could accuse the WRU hierarchy of being indecisive and their decision was fully vindicated as Jenkins’ replacement Warren Gatland delivered a decade of stunning success.

Exactly 14 years on, this is the full inside story of those dramatic hours when the WRU got ruthless.

The obvious choice

Gareth Jenkins’ Wales tenure may have ended in ignominy, but there was little dissent about his appointment, thanks to a domestic CV including nine Welsh Cup triumphs, league titles, Heineken Cup semi-finals and a win over world champions Australia.

He had been overlooked for the top job in 2004, over concerns about his lack of experience outside Wales, but after Mike Ruddock was ousted in 2006, there was only one real candidate.

Sadly for Jenkins, any hopes of a honeymoon period were short.

Wales lost their first four 2007 Six Nations games – including a 23-20 defeat to Italy – before the campaign was semi-rescued with a James Hook-inspired 27-18 victory over England.

Provided we beat the English, as the old saying goes.

However, the WRU weren’t happy with the earlier results and things seemed to be going awry off the field too, with the players castigated over a night on the town following an abject display in Scotland.

A 62-5 Twickenham thrashing by England in a World Cup warm-up match in August left many fearing the worst in France.

Jenkins remained adamant he was on the right track, insisting: “Judge me at the World Cup.”

A concerned WRU hierarchy of chief executive Roger Lewis, chairman David Pickering and vice-chair Gerald Davies were ready to do just that.

The WRU huddle on the pitch

Things started as expected out in France, as comfortable victories over Canada and Japan sandwiched a predictable defeat to Australia.

Everything hinged on the final pool game against Fiji at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.

A star-studded Welsh line-up featuring Grand Slam winners Gareth Thomas, Shane Williams, Dwayne Peel, Adam Jones and Martyn Williams was expected to be far too strong for the Fijians.

Particularly with Wales’ vastly superior forward pack. They just needed to turn the set-piece screw.

Instead, a chaotic 80 minutes of free-flowing rugby unfolded that more closely resembled a sevens match. The game ebbed and flowed, Wales took the lead, then Fiji, then Wales, then Fiji.

Nigel Davies was Jenkins’ trusted No.2 in the Welsh coaching team.

“We wanted to play with structure because that is the way to play Fiji, but I also felt we could outscore them on tries. The challenge was to do that and limit them at the same time,” he recalls.

It was utter rugby bedlam, but with a three point advantage in the closing moments Wales looked like coming through the scare – when Fijian hooker Graham Dewes forced his way over for a converted try.

There was no time to respond. Wales had lost 38-34. Jenkins and his team were out of the World Cup.



Wales' players gather together for a huddle at the end of the game as Gareth Jenkins comes to terms with what's happened
Wales’ players gather together for a huddle at the end of the game as Gareth Jenkins comes to terms with what’s happened

It wasn’t hard to foresee the difficulties ahead, although few expected Jenkins to be axed so swiftly.

The hotel rooms booked for an expected quarter-final in Marseille had to be cancelled. The WRU, players, coaches, supporters, journalists and fans were suddenly going home.

“It is hard to recall a game or occasion like it,” reflects WalesOnline rugby writer Mark Orders, who was one of the journalists out in Nantes.

“Wales played pretty much without caution against the acknowledged masters of running rugby. Fortune is said to favour the bold, but it certainly didn’t that day.

“At half-time, a supporter shouted within earshot of the press box ‘Taxi for Jenkins’. It was a brutal, nasty comment, for Gareth Jenkins had waited for so many years for the Wales job.”

High up in the Nantes stands, the WRU’s senior figures had seen enough. Among them was chairman David Pickering, the former Wales captain. Next to him was chief executive Roger Lewis.

“We can’t carry on like this,” they decided.

But how did they go about conducting conversations about what happened next without other officials eavesdropping?

Pickering came up with a novel idea and suggested descending to the middle of the pitch to discuss Jenkins’ future.

Just 30 minutes after the game had ended, Pickering, Lewis and the WRU’s head of communications, John Williams, were seen standing near the halfway line deep in conversation.

Everybody left in the ground could see they were having a meeting, but obviously couldn’t hear what was being said. In Pickering’s view, the most exposed location in the stadium would also be the most discreet.

What the scene didn’t reveal was the decision taken by the men involved. An emergency board meeting was required.

And it could not wait until they arrived back in Cardiff.

The board meeting in the bar

While the WRU huddle was taking place down on the pitch, Jenkins was addressing the media inside the stadium.

“Like the game, his appearance was remarkable,” recalls Mark Orders.

“Jenkins was close to tears, a proud man who had seen his dream in rugby come to nothing when it mattered. He had a lump in his throat when he spoke but, sitting next to him, the captain Gareth Thomas had recovered a degree of fizz and defiance, telling the media ‘It can be the most brilliant thing in the world and the most difficult thing in the world to be a Welsh rugby player’.”

As the press conference finished, Alfie came down from the top table to shake the hands of the journalists present. Jenkins quietly departed.

While that was happening, upstairs in the stadium’s lounge bar the WRU’s 14 Board members present at the game, each dressed in their union blazers, were asked to gather for an impromptu emergency meeting.

It was barely an hour after the final whistle by this stage. The group assembled in a corner of the function room, away from assorted officials from the French and Fijian unions, to discuss the sole item on the agenda: the future of Gareth Jenkins.

The view was expressed that the time had come for change. It needed to be immediate, it was said, as the world’s best coaches would become available at the conclusion of the World Cup and Wales didn’t want to risk missing out by dither and delay.

The Board meeting took half an hour, during which all present had an opportunity to speak. Eventually, the 14 were asked to vote on the motion that the Fiji defeat had rendered Jenkins’ position untenable.

The motion was carried, 13-1. Pretty comprehensive, although Jenkins’ lone backer did argue the case for keeping him.

He was heavily outnumbered, however.

It was agreed that a three-man delegation of Pickering, Lewis and WRU vice-chairman Gerald Davies should meet Jenkins the following morning to ask him to tender his resignation with immediate effect.

They felt being ruthless was also the best way of protecting Jenkins, with fans and media turning on him big time.

The following morning’s Wales on Sunday front page was devoted to a comment piece demanding Jenkins’ head.

“You said judge me at the World Cup. Well we have – it’s time to go,” was the gist of the article.

The knives were well and truly out. Without immediate action, this could get nasty.

Sacked at the team hotel

On the Sunday morning try legend Gerald Davies, in his other role as an IRB official, had to travel to Paris for another World Cup fixture, leaving Lewis and Pickering to deliver news of the Board’s decision to Jenkins.

They got up early and drove the 45 miles the from their own Nantes hotel to Wales’ training base in Pornichet on the Atlantic coast., where Jenkins and his team had returned the night before.

The WRU powerbrokers had requested to see Jenkins at 8.30am and also passed on a message for the players to be ready for a briefing shortly afterwards.

Wales were due to fly home at lunchtime. There was little time to spare.

It was reported at the time that Jenkins had been sacked in the car park, after a Times journalist spotted Pickering, Lewis and Jenkins walking across the front of the team hotel and deep in conversation.

In fact, the deed was done in an annex away from the main hotel.

Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, Jenkins had begun to suspect the WRU’s decision was coming. But he chose not to resign, despite the prospect of a compensation deal from the WRU. Jenkins, a proud man, had another year to run on his contract and remained adamant he could still make Wales successful, given time.

But the Board’s comprehensive vote had left Lewis and Pickering with nowhere to go. One way or another, Jenkins had to vacate the post.

They also felt the fierce backlash heading his way from an angry Welsh public shocked by Wales’ lame World Cup performance would give him no opportunity to rehabilitate his standing as a coach.

By leaving the job, Jenkins could regroup away from the spotlight and Wales would be able to plan properly for the future.

He was told his contract was being terminated.



Gareth Jenkins was dismissed as head coach after Wales’ World Cup failure in 2007

“It was a cruel necessity,” explains Lewis.

The other coaches – Nigel Davies, Robin McBryde and Neil Jenkins – were told the news next, followed by the players, as recalled by skipper Gareth Thomas in his book, Alfie.

“Roger came to see me: ‘Look, we’ve just asked Gareth to step down. We’re going to announce it to the squad, but as captain I wanted you to be first to know’.

“We were herded into the team room. The atmosphere was surreal because we were still trying to come to terms with the previous day’s defeat and suddenly we were being asked to absorb another bombshell. Things were moving so fast we barely knew where we were.

“Roger spoke first, thanked Gareth for his efforts but informed the players there would be a new coach. There was a numbed silence. I had never before been in a situation in which things had been done like that.

“Gareth thanked us, but he was emotional and didn’t say a lot. Then I stood up and said although Gareth had taken the bullet, we were in this together and, in a way, each to blame.

“And that was it – before we knew it we were on the bus. It was difficult for Gareth in those circumstances, but he had our respect and certainly our sympathy. The bus journey was more or less silent.”

The brutal manner of the sacking left an atmosphere of shock among the players – and anger among Jenkins’ staff.

“Nothing will convince me what happened that day was the right way to relieve someone of his job,” insists Nigel Davies.

“It was cruel and unnecessary to treat Gareth as the WRU treated him that morning.

“You have to be cool-headed when deciding something of that importance, take time to reflect. Instead, Gareth was gone less than 24 hours after the game had finished. There must be better ways of doing things.

“I will say the way Gareth handled himself that weekend was an example to every one of us. He may have lost his job but he kept his dignity.”

The awkward journey home

The WRU gave Jenkins the option of returning to Wales alone, or with the touring party. He chose to stay with the team.

They flew into Cardiff, and travelled the short distance by coach to Wales’ base at the Vale of Glamorgan hotel.

Adam Jones recalls the humbling scene as the team’s departing boss got off the bus and left his players for the last time.

“There are two routes into the hotel,” he wrote in his book Bomb: My Autobiography.

“One involves driving up the winding driveway, past the golf course and up to the main entrance. The other is a tradesman’s route, skirting round the side of the complex and emerging at the indoor training barn.

“When we reached the junction of these two roads, Gareth asked the driver if he could stop and get off.

“He knew the Press would be at the hotel reception. The bus slowed to a halt. Gareth stood up, with his bag of duty free in one hand — a couple of Toblerones and a bottle of whisky — and he bade us farewell. No valedictory speech. Just a brief thanks, and he was gone.

“He walked up the lane on his own, wheeling his suitcase and clutching his plastic bag. It was a scene dripping with melancholy. He looked smaller, less commanding, like the whole experience had robbed him of his vitality.”

Jenkins had urged against “panic” and “knee-jerk” reactions. But after just 16 months in charge, having won only six of his 20 Tests, he had been ditched.

You can’t keep your job as Wales coach with a record as bad as that, certainly not with the talent available in the squad.

A winning Wales helps fund everything in the Welsh game. Instead, the team were out of the World Cup and the debt-riddled WRU were about to post a loss of £2.1million. The business was broken, the team at rock bottom.

Back at the Vale hotel, Lewis confirmed Jenkins’ departure at a hastily arranged press conference.

“Gareth’s desire for success has been tangible – you can taste it, you can smell it when you are in his company – but it was not to be,” he said.

“We have got to be totally focused that we don’t find ourselves in this position again. Rugby defines and unites us as a nation. This is not blaming one person.

“This is not about blaming Gareth Jenkins. Welsh rugby needs to look at itself and ask itself the tough questions. There is a collective responsibility for where we have arrived at today and there is a collective desire to ensure we don’t arrive at this position in 2011.”

Jenkins kept his counsel at the time, but he could not restrain his anger.

A few years later he claimed in the Times: “Roger Lewis and David Pickering should hang their heads in shame to treat a fellow Welshman in the way they manipulated and used the opportunity of my responsibility for not getting to a quarter-final of the World Cup.

“There were other ways it could have been done. Every press camera you can imagine was outside the room where we sat down and I was asked to resign. I said it was never my intention to go. I had a contract to the end of the next Six Nations, it was something I wanted to fulfil.

“I thought my experiences, as disappointing as they were, should be the backbone of constructing a way forward.”

Jenkins said he had looked in the mirror and asked: “What would I have done differently?”

Very little, was his answer. 10 to 20 per cent at most.

Perhaps that is why the WRU made their ruthless call.

The search for the new man

By Monday morning, two days after the Fiji match, the WRU had already begun scouring the world for the right person to take this talented Welsh team forward.

They were to leave no stone unturned. There was to be no hanging about.

A shortlist was drawn up that included the finest coaches in the game – Steve Hansen, Ian Foster, Robbie Deans, Jake White. Also on there was a certain Warren Gatland, technical advisor at the Waikato Chiefs in New Zealand.

Lewis met Hansen for an informal chat in Cardiff, emailed White and quickly arranged to head to Australasia to speak to Foster, Deans and Gatland, travelling on the same flight as Graham Henry’s New Zealand, who were heading home after their own shock World Cup elimination by France.

Lewis met Gatland and Foster in a hotel close to Auckland airport, then flew on to see Deans in Australia. Even at that early stage, and despite the hugely impressive credentials of the others, Gatland quickly stood out as the preferred candidate.

“You’re 10th in the world. There’s only one direction in which you can go,” he told Lewis, explaining how he would go about making that happen.

Gatland was due to travel to the UK in a couple of weeks to see old Wasps and Ireland friends, so Lewis suggested a meeting in Wales as part of that trip for a second chat. Lewis picked him up in his Mercedes, took him to his home village of St Hilary just outside Cowbridge and suggested a pint at his local, The Bush Inn.

“It was like a scene from one of those Westerns when the doors to the saloon open and everyone turns to stare as the gunslinger walks in,” reflects Lewis today.

“There had been a chatter of noise. Suddenly it was silence, everyone whispering in corners.

“We walked up to the bar, ordered two pints of bitter, and went to sit down. The noise started up again and a well known local character called John sauntered across: ‘Hello Mr Gatland, I’d like to introduce myself. I’m one of Wales’ three million selectors’.

“Warren just burst into laughter.”

By this stage Lewis had decided Gatland was the right man for Wales. He just needed to persuade him to agree to come on board.

What to do next? He hit on the idea of taking Gatland on a helicopter tour of Wales to showcase the nation.

“He sat in the front, I strapped up in the back, and off we went,” recalls Lewis.

“We started at Cardiff Bay, flew around Rodney Parade, up the Gwent Valley, over Pen y Fan, Rhigos in the Rhondda… over the old Stradey Park and the new Parc y Scarlets development… over the Gnoll, the Brewery Field and eventually back to Cardiff.”

Everywhere Gatland saw rugby pitches. He was hugely impressed.

“This is just like being back home in New Zealand,” he said.

Gatland conceded that helicopter flight helped him understand just how small the Welsh rugby “goldfish bowl” was, saying: “Rugby is largely confined between Llanelli and Newport.”

He also quickly understood what it meant to the Welsh public.

The deal is done… and the rest is history

Gatland asked for time to think about the job offer, but had pretty much made up his mind.

His main request was for Rob Howley and Shaun Edwards to be brought on board as his coaches.

Other members of Jenkins’ backroom staff, like Robin McBryde and Neil Jenkins, could remain in their roles..

The deal for Edwards was complicated as he was with Wasps and England wanted him too. But Lewis and Gatland helped smooth the path and persuaded Edwards to join up.

What an impact he was to have as defence coach.

It was a lot more straightforward for Howley, then David Young’s No.2 with Cardiff Blues.

Their boss Peter Thomas agreed to let Howley go – and part of the negotiations involved the WRU striking a deal with the Blues over a Millennium Stadium hospitality box!

Gatland and Lewis met again seven days on at St David’s Hotel on the Cardiff Bay waterfront, where they were struck by the reception he was given.

“It was just so welcoming, so Welsh,” says Lewis.

Within months of replacing Jenkins, Gatland had turned largely the same group of Welsh players into 2008 Grand Slam winners and repeated the feat in 2012.

They also won the 2013 title and reached the World Cup semi-finals, in doing so turning around that loss in 2007 into record revenues.

Jenkins’ winning record with Wales was 30 per cent. By the time he left, a 2019 Grand Slam also in the bag, Gatland’s stood at 56 per cent.

In stark contrast to Jenkins’ Fijian woe, Gatland’s World Cup win record stood at more than 60 per cent, with 12 wins from 17 games. In the Six Nations it was in excess of 70 per cent.

Everyone will have their own view about whether the WRU were too ruthless. They will argue the stark facts and figures fully vindicated their actions.

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