Warren Gatland says “it has been some experience” as he prepares to call time on his success-laden Wales coaching career.
Gatland’s 12-year reign will end following the World Cup bronze medal match between Wales and New Zealand in Tokyo on Friday.
He will return home to New Zealand and take charge of Hamilton-based Super Rugby franchise the Chiefs, while he will also coach the 2021 British and Irish Lions in South Africa.
Gatland’s stint with Wales has seen them win four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams, reach two World Cup semi-finals, and be ranked as the world’s number one team.
“It has been some experience,” he said. “I have said on a number of occasions I never thought I would have been in Wales for 12 years.
“I am very privileged to have worked with a group of coaches and backroom staff, and we have been incredibly close over that period. That has made things so much easier in terms of the synergy and being on the same page.
“The players that I have worked with, I have had about three squads over that period, and I have worked with some outstanding individuals and some players I have been very lucky to coach.
“I would also like to thank the Welsh public. They have been challenging at times, but they have made it worthwhile in terms of just how welcoming they have been to me in Wales.
“They have been so hospitable, and it is really like a second home for me in Wales. I am going to miss being there.”
Gatland’s final game in Cardiff as Wales boss was the World Cup warm-up game against Ireland two months ago, when he admitted to having “a few tears.”
He will, though, return to the Welsh capital as Barbarians coach against Wales in his successor Wayne Pivac’s first game on November 30.
“This is an end of an era area for a lot of people,” he added.
“For a number of players this will probably be their last World Cup game, so there are a lot of people involved, not just myself.
“We’ve punched massively above our weight, and success as a coach isn’t always about winning — I think it’s about overachieving as a team, and I feel we’ve definitely done that.
“We are a very small playing nation with a lot of history, and the biggest memory I have is the smile we’ve put back on people’s faces to wear the red jersey again and to support the team.”
As Gatland bows out, Wales goes with Wales by sending his team into battle against the All Blacks — albeit a third-place play-off, rather than Saturday’s World Cup final — having not beaten New Zealand since 1953.
“It has been a long time — 66 years — not to beat a side,” he said. “We have had success against every other nation. The All Blacks have been that elusive team we have not been able to conquer.
“There is a lot at stake, even though both teams are disappointed they are not involved in the big game. It [the play-off] is the last game you want to be involved in, but it has been on the calendar and everyone has known about it.
“When you put the disappointment behind you, you think about the chance to play the All Blacks and that gets you excited.”