Warren Gatland said the threat of possible player strike action before Wales’ Six Nations clash against England caused “a significant split” within his squad.
Wales head to Rome to play Italy on Saturday, having lost their opening three games, and are at risk of their first Six Nations wooden spoon for 20 years.
The matches so far have taken place against the backdrop of a dispute in Welsh rugby, with all four professional teams — Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets — facing major funding cuts.
That has led to vastly reduced contract offers for many players whose deals expire at the end of this season, and a player exodus appears inevitable.
The off-field issues led to the threat of a players’ strike before the Six Nations clash against England last month.
Industrial action was averted but Wales suffered a third successive defeat.
“In terms of the stuff that was going on off the field, that definitely had an impact,” said Gatland.
“There was quite a significant split in the group over which way to go and I think that definitely caused some tension within the group for a couple of weeks.
“I think if things do get signed and get sorted and we get Welsh rugby back on the right track, I think it will be positive for everyone.”
Gatland, who returned for a second stint as Wales coach in December, said players had different opinions over the issues at stake but added that “things have settled down over the last couple of weeks”.
“There were big moments in the England game where there were no celebrations from our players — no slapping backsides or congratulating guys about turnovers,” he said.
“That has sort of been the message this week, making sure we celebrate as a group. When I look back and saw we weren’t doing that against England, that is probably a reflection of where we were as a group.”
– Gatland rings changes –
Gatland has made six changes to his starting line-up for the Stadio Olimpico encounter, with full-back Liam Williams, wing Rio Dyer, scrum-half Rhys Webb, prop Wyn Jones, lock Dafydd Jenkins and flanker Jac Morgan called up.
The injured Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar were not considered, while other players absent include veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones and flanker Christ Tshiunza.
Gatland said he had been disappointed by results so far in the Six Nations but added that younger players needed time on the pitch ahead of this year’s World Cup in France.
“For a number of players it could be their last year in a Welsh jersey as well, so there will be that sort of transition going forward,” said the New Zealander.
“We are not quite where we want to be in terms of that process, but I can tell we are working hard.
“One of the things I’ve always said is you cannot coach experience. Sometimes, young players make mistakes and you’ve got to allow them to do that.
“They learn from playing at the highest level and gain that knowledge from international rugby. That’s why for a number of them we have got to give them time in the middle.”