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Friday 19 September 2014

One summer day in Sydney can't define a relationship that started 14 years before

Talk of an O'Driscoll v Gatland 'grudge match' borders on realms of Hollywood fantasy

Published 07/02/2014 | 02:30

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Gatland and O'Driscoll after the Lions completed a series victory against Australia last July with the Irishman having been dropped from the match-day squad

"YOU know what this is, Razor? It's a video game. They wanna put you and Kid in the game." – Dante Slate Jnr.

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'Grudge Match' is the comic boxing movie that has Sly Stallone and Robert De Niro climbing into the ring after 30 years of accumulating unwanted flesh to settle some unspecific, old score.

It's a send-up of every schmaltzy, Rocky-style flick ever shown. Stallone – aka Henry 'Razor' Sharp – is, after all, 67 now. De Niro – or Billy 'The Kid' McDonnen – is 70. There is no real way of stripping either man to the waist without everything feeling just a little creepy.

But some of the lines are good and, given that 'Grudge Match' makes no claim to be anything but a comedy, it passes two hours without breaching any creative contract.

The same can't really be said about Ireland-Wales this week. In media-land, it's become some kind of Abbott and Costello sketch between two men for whom the narrative, palpably, has grown more irritating by the hour.

On Tuesday, Warren Gatland advised Welsh journalists that he was already "pretty pissed off" at people raising the issue of his relationship with Brian O'Driscoll as some kind of compelling subplot to this weekend's Six Nations game in Dublin.

On Wednesday, O'Driscoll adopted a similar tone, tweeting his dismay that a TV interview he'd given to BT Sport should be flagged under an "unbelievably annoying headline."

That headline, 'Brian O'Driscoll on Lions omission,' played a gentle trick that has become increasingly common in the media world. It took one, small segment of a broad-ranging interview, a segment O'Driscoll claims he "told them to edit it to within an inch of its life," and effectively spun the illusion that it was something revelatory.

The plain reality is that two men who playfully exchanged Christmas cards since that Lions tour last year are unlikely to see one another as devils incarnate now.

True, O'Driscoll would – undoubtedly – take added personal satisfaction from contributing a big performance to an Irish victory tomorrow. That is simply human nature. Only Gatland knows why he omitted Ireland's most capped player from the final Test in Australia. But, for the rest of us, that story surely had to die a death the moment the Lions won.

After all, is there not something absurdly egocentric in the notion that Gatland had no right to pick his own team? Even if he did pick one radiating a conspicuously red hue?

Yet, the 'O'Driscoll angle' was tossed, seemingly unsolicited, into the narrative by some Welsh players in the Millennium Stadium 'mixed zone' last Saturday evening – Rhys Priestland alluding to Ireland's appetite for "revenge" – before Gatland, himself set about decommissioning it in typically brusque style.

By Tuesday, Alun-Wyn Jones was reminding people that a rugby Saturday in Dublin didn't quite equate with a flak-jacket operation in Homs and, 24 hours later, Gatland himself was chatting to Pat Kenny on Newstalk, revealing how his family had just travelled over to Galway that very day to meet up with old friends.

Listening, you were reminded that his connections with Ireland extend far beyond a famously hostile break-up with the IRFU in 2001.

For long before he leapt into the national consciousness here, Gatland and his wife Trudy gave up their teaching jobs in Waikato so that he could take up a coaching post with Galwegians.

They were four years in Galway when their four-month-old daughter. Shauna, passed away, having been born with spina bifida.

Despite being contracted to Galwegians, the Gatlands encountered only support and encouragement for their natural desire to return to New Zealand.

That level of understanding has never been forgotten and friendships forged back then are said to remain robust to this day.

There is also the small detail, of course, that it was Gatland who introduced O'Driscoll to international rugby.

The young, Blackrock College graduate had yet to play a game for Leinster when he lined out in both Tests on Ireland's '99 tour of Australia. So, what happened in Sydney 14 years later can scarcely be considered the defining story of their professional relationship.

Gatland, remarkably, became Ireland coach at 35, the same age that O'Driscoll turned just over a fortnight ago. He had returned to the west in September of '96 to coach Connacht, creating a dynamic that challenged the players in his own, uniquely direct way.

In Brendan Fanning's 'From There to Here', Bernard Jackman – Connacht hooker at the time – talked of the competitive streak Gatland brought, specifically to the forwards' gym-work.

"You'd be on the bench-press and the next thing he'd appear over and start leaning on it," explained Jackman, now at Grenoble and a man who – next season – becomes the first Irish head-coach in France's Top 14.

"And you wouldn't know when he was going to get off. That was his big thing and, the first year especially, he worked us to the bone.

"I remember one day early the next season, he brought us down to Athlone for a video session and it was the bluntest couple of hours I think any of us had ever been through.

"That was the start of professionalism in terms of analysis. He cut right to the bone with a few guys. That was the first place I'd heard the term 'ruck inspector.' After that, we went out on the field for an hour and 'killed' each other. And then we really started to click."

Gatland would bring that same candour to the Ireland job when appointed in '98, but, despite obvious progress, he came to be seen by some senior players as cavalier in preparation and short on tactical detail.

He was undoubtedly hurt by the IRFU's decision not to renew his contract after the November internationals of '01, but that parting of the ways had been looming for some time. Gatland's relationship with the Union was never especially warm and he'd exchanged angry words with some committee-men in their Edinburgh team hotel after Ireland's thumping by Scotland in the delayed Six Nations game of that year.

Keith Wood admits he considered retirement when Ireland then blew a 21-7 lead against the All Blacks, Gatland's refusal to appoint a defence coach broadly considered a contributory factor to the concession of three tries in 12 second-half minutes.

Eddie O'Sullivan, Gatland's assistant at the time, was seen as more technically accomplished. As Wood put it in O'Sullivan's autobiography 'Never Die Wondering', "Warren Gatland gave us consistency of selection and a simple game plan. And, suddenly, we became this intransigent rugby team.

"But we needed to do more, we needed to expand. When Eddie took over, we became very analytical and technical."

To some degree, the Irish perspective of Gatland still seems framed by the climate of his departure. He is a scrapper by nature, as evidenced by his demeanour before Ireland's Grand Slam game in Cardiff five years ago when he claimed Welsh players "dislike the Irish the most" and accused Declan Kidney of speaking in "cliches and nothing."

Gatland considered his '01 dismissal unjustified and, in a subsequent interview with an English tabloid, implied that it might have been connected to his refusal to "kiss the butts or massage the egos of the right committee men."

Yet, the parting would prove mutually beneficial.

Under O'Sullivan, Ireland won three Triple Crowns in four seasons whilst Gatland proved himself a revelation at Wasps, winning three Premiership titles and a Heineken Cup.

CONTRACT

And now, as a successful Lions coach in possession of a long-term contract with Wales, Warren Gatland's stock could not possibly fly higher. The very notion of an idea forming in some low-lit skulls to jeer him in Dublin tomorrow surely, thus, belongs in the realm of farce.

A broad hope to see O'Driscoll excel in an Irish victory hardly equates to a national or – for that matter – even personal 'grudge.'

It is also inconceivable that Joe Schmidt – a coach whose reputation has been built upon precision and emotional equanimity – would countenance some kind of cartoon stand-off contaminating Irish preparations.

"There's going to be a little bit of an edge to it, we've got to expect that," said Gatland on Wednesday in the way of a coach simply anticipating the collision of two title-contending teams.

But it won't be Rocky and it certainly won't be 'Razor' Sharp swinging windmills at 'The Kid' McDonnen. Life might imitate art at times, but it seldom takes a stab at recycling Hollywood comedy.

Irish Independent

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