Thursday 25 December 2014

Vincent Hogan: Sour Gatland can't get over Irish allergy

Published 08/03/2010 | 05:00

Warren Gatland, here celebrating his Welsh team's win over Ireland at Croke Park two years ago, just doesn't seem to have ever got over his parting of the ways with the IRFU in 2001

Well. I wonder what gentle incendiaries Warren Gatland has lined up for us this week. All may appear pleasant and tranquil right now, but it wouldn't be Ireland v Wales if Warren wasn't planning to throw his jacket on the ground and invite half the country outside to answer for some imagined slight.

So, what will it be this time? Or, more pointedly, who?

Gatland has a problem with Irish rugby in the way Michael O'Leary has a problem with the Dublin Airport Authority. He feels that business between them has been soured by a toxic, personal agenda which, I'm afraid, makes him snappy as a menopausal warthog.

And just about as rational.

In 2008, he played his 'et tu, Brute' card against Eddie O'Sullivan. Last year, he went after the Irish players with his peaceable "Wales dislike Ireland more than any other team" address.

It's an eccentric way for a coach to behave, but Gatland -- it seems -- cannot help himself.

It is as if he lives in mortal dread of one day being invisible.

Now those who know him say he is an eminently decent sort. Witty. Self-deprecating. Never slow to buy his round. And his coaching record with Wasps and Wales clearly holds up to the harshest scrutiny.

But Warren developed an itch in the autumn of 2001 that, to this day, he keeps on scratching.

The day the IRFU opted not to renew his contract was the day Warren acquired a peculiar allergy against all things Irish.

We are his poison ivy and, short of sending an industrial vat of calamine lotion his way, it's a little hard to see how Warren and us can ever be remotely compatible again.

One of the unexplored stories of last year's Grand Slam game in Cardiff was the flaring unpleasantness in the Millennium Stadium stands. Ordinarily, international rugby crowds steam along amiably together, everyone florid with alcohol, but generally agreeable.

In Cardiff, the vibe was different. It was palpably sour. In maybe 15 previous visits for Wales-Ireland games, I can never remember a more menacing, confrontational vibe in the city.

Cardiff always feels a little overwhelmed by a Six Nations crowd and, no question, the late evening kick-off wasn't exactly conducive to thoughtful analysis of anything deeper than the demands of navigating safe passage to a bar counter.

But it felt too as if Gatland's words settled over the occasion like a chemical cloud.

And when Ryan Jones clattered needlessly into Ronan O'Gara in the first minute of the game, there was the sense of a team and its people in absolute union. And ever so slightly out of control.

The Welsh coach would explain later that his words had been intended as "a compliment" to Ireland.

From this, you will gather that listening to Warren retrace his steps is a bit like listening to a tree.

Now this column refuses to entertain the suggestion that, maybe, it's the Kiwi in him that is programmed for conflict. New Zealand rugby people are the most cerebral, non-confrontational people in the game today. Got that? It's crystal clear that any bad manners Warren might carry about were picked up this side of the equator.

You wouldn't ever get an All Black doing anything quite as daft as taking a golf cart down a motorway to buy a bar of chocolate, would you? Maybe the odd little outburst of hotel high-jinks here and there. But nothing to detain Her Majesty's finest unduly.

No, this is a local thing and Gatland has made the current Wales team rather easy to dislike.

In Cardiff especially, he seems endlessly tuned to provocation. Already this season, he has criticised the Scots for insisting the Millennium Stadium roof stayed open; then taken a swipe at the French, declaring his team had "played all the rugby" in a defeat against them.

And remember, in his attempt at conciliation just prior to last year's Grand Slam game, he opined that he might in future follow Declan Kidney's style of spouting "cliches and nothing."

Yep, Warren is to diplomacy what Smith and Wesson are to peace.

All of which seems a terrible pity, because he is surrounded by fine people. Rob Howley was as good a scrum-half as it has been this column's privilege to see. And Shaun Edwards broke just about every record there was to break in rugby league.

Just one thing about Edwards, mind. Does he not see how this thing of clutching a novel during games makes him look more than a mite pretentious? Apparently, he carries the book as some kind of pressure outlet, should he become too wound up in a game.

So, when Wales are defending a line-out inside their own 22, Shaun takes refuge in a few pages of Sebastian Faulks? Right.

And maybe Sam Allardyce will unfold a chess-board one of these days when El Hadji Diouf is romancing an opposition crowd.

Frankly, give me England and Martin 'Billy No Mates' Johnson any day ahead of Gatland's Wales. They may be delusional, but they're not drowning in self-absorption.

Ireland to win on Saturday. Warren to toss his jacket on the ground.

Irish Independent

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