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I'm happy to do without great expectations this time round, admits Gatland; THE JOY OF SIX: Countdown starts here to big Twickers clash: Champions tag weighed heavy on us, says coach.

Byline: Delme Parfitt

WARREN Gatland has predicted hisWales team will have an easier ride in this year's Six Nations Championship, without the burden of being defending Grand Slam champions.

While the New Zealander's challenge to his players 12 months ago was for them to cope with the favourites' tag after their magnificent 2008 exploits, now he admits he is glad that Ireland have to carry that mantle.

And he warned Brian O'Driscoll and company that they will find it far fromeasy to repeat their heroics of last season.

Asked how it feels to go into the tournament as the scalp every other team wants to take, Gatland replied: "It's tough because there is so much expectation. "Having won last year everyone is going to be gunning for Ireland this year.

"The Six Nations is about momentum. Youcan go into it with lowexpectation,win a couple of games and then suddenly become very hard to beat. But maybe you learn more from defeats than you do from wins.

"The tough thing for Ireland is having to go away to play England and France.

"For us, we have the same schedule as two years ago and we're confident we're going to have a good Six Nations. People aren't talking about us winning and that probably makes it easier for us."

Easier maybe, but it's not as if Gatland's Wales are going to slip beneath any radars either.

The microscopic scrutiny thatcomeswith the territory of leading one of the most passionate rugby nations of them all is as intense as ever for the Kiwi.

And that was why he had little sympathy for the flak Martin Johnson - his opposite number in the England camp for next Saturday's big opener atTwickenham- has taken fromthe English media in his year or so in charge.

"We're all under pressure because it's all about results," said Gatland. "I feel exactly the same about the things that are written about myself and the team on a regular basis in Wales. But we all understand pressure."

And the formerWasps and Ireland coach has an interesting take on what is driving the increasingly short life-spans of rugby coaches at all levels.

But he used the example of Sir Clive Woodward to exemplify why a change in emphasis is needed.

He added: "Probably the issue at the moment is that a lot of the pressure is driven, not by rugby but by another sport.

"In football there are a huge number of managerial changes. It's a revolving door, and I think it's having an impact on rugby.

"Sometimes coaches aren't given time, 12 months if they are lucky, and if they are not producing results they are told they're going to bemoved on. It's just the climate we are in.

"The best example with England was with Clive (Woodward).

"He had a couple of seasons where England didn't perform but he was given time and was able to develop a squad, gain experience and by the end it they won the World Cup and for two years had been easily the best side in the world. Given the amount of time, and the resources England have I'm sure Martin could do a similar job."

So howlong does Gatland think is fair for a coach to be given? He puffed out his cheeks in exasperation at that inquiry.

"Six years? I don't know. How long's a piece of string?" he said. "You have to look at injuries to players, staff changes; but after a couple of seasons you want to see improvement."

And Gatland may well be privately concerned that the improvement he mentions could be about to surface in what has been a troubled England camp under Johnson.

Gradually he is becoming able to select from a stronger deckwith players returning from injury.

Having taken Wales through an autumn campaign that was undermined by injuries, Gatland knows all about how it feels to be restricted in your selection.

And any concern he does have will be exacerbated bythe pressure toset the tone for the tournament with an opening day win.

"I don't think you can underestimate how important key players are when you lose them from a side," said Gatland "We went through it in the autumn and it does hamper your preparation and the way you want to play the game.

"Looking at, potentially, what side England may put out it could be much more attacking.

"Someone like Flutey has great footwork, Tait is dangerous at centre and they have physical wingers like Armitage.

"In the autumn I think they were hampered bythe experience and quality of the players that were available.

"Two years ago,we went up there having not won at the place for 20 years and got the win, and it became the stepping stone for a good Six Nations. It's the same for both teams now.

"They are probably happy to be playing us and we are happy to play them.

"It will be tough but if we can get a win then our next two matches are at home.

"It is a really tough tournament but the good thing for us is that if you look at Heineken Cup form we have players coming into the squad with a bit of a spring in their step, a bit of confidence. We are all excited."

CAPTION(S):

IRISH HIGHS: Brian O'Driscoll lifts the Six Nations trophy last year, while England coach Martin Johnson, inset left, had little to shout about
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Jan 31, 2010
Words:914
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