Sport Rugby

Sunday 21 September 2014

Vincent Hogan: Ill-advised 'warthog' slur no bother to charming Gatland

Published 01/12/2012 | 05:00

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If you're a writer who pops their clogs and suddenly find yourself on that stairlift to the Pearly Gates, there's an obvious favour to ask of St Peter. After the one about your family's well-being, of course (dog, goldfish and mother-in-law included). As well as that sad, eternal prayer for Liverpool to maybe win two games in a row.

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It's where you ask about the possibility of a posthumous re-edit on some of the work you've done that, well, left you feeling like a Nazi paratrooper. In this column's case, one such piece was written during the Six Nations of 2010, exploring Warren Gatland's facility for making incendiary remarks about Irish rugby.

'Gatty', we surmised, could be "snappy as a menopausal warthog" when it came to matters concerning his former employers.

It was a carelessly thrown match that ignited the most extraordinary inferno. The Welsh media seemed to adopt the line by proxy as some grievous national insult, demanding retribution. Bizarrely, it all but became the touchstone of their previews as Ireland and Wales prepared for battle in Dublin.

"An extraordinary blast", 'The Western Mail' called it. Gatland himself didn't quite share the outrage (not openly at least), describing the line as "hilarious" and admitting that he'd since been the recipient of assorted warthog images from some of his own players. It wasn't exactly the high point of this column's career, though.

Fugitive

When he also said he had hoped to meet the author "face to face" at the Friday press conference but, unfortunately, there was a 'no-show' (I've never attended a Friday conference), the sense of a fugitive on the run grew traction in my own mind.

So, the following day, I pointedly took a front- row seat at the post-game press conference, but it was old news now. Ireland won the game and Wales' coach delivered himself to the dinky media auditorium in the bowels of Croke Park, a portrait of perfect magnanimity and grace.

My guilt followed him out the door after, never to resurface until this week in Wales.

Gatland launched the new adidas Lions jersey in Cardiff Castle on Wednesday and – as one of maybe 40 journalists attending – I chose to break the ice. Still shuffling uncomfortably on heels broken in that awful fall last April, he was just returning from the photo- shoot when I intercepted the New Zealander to, well, belatedly apologise for any offence caused.

Perhaps the image of a snivelling charlatan takes root here and it may well be the one that initially flashed through Gatland's head, but he couldn't have been more charming.

Two and a half years after a clunking attempt at tongue-in-cheek humour turned battery-acid sour, Gatland didn't just offer absolution. He pretty much implicated himself in the creation of what, was then, a fractious climate between the countries.

"You know," he sighed, "I would have been saying things at the time to try and take some heat off my team and ended up regretting them myself."

We chatted amicably for a while, the adidas people gesturing frantically for his attention. And it became crystal clear that all those incendiaries thrown Ireland's way by Warren Gatland since his departure as our national coach in 2001 were – in his eyes – strictly strategic, never personal.

Some say he may now even appoint a third consecutive Irish captain for the Lions' tour to Australia next summer although, given the last formal Welsh appointment to the role was Phil Bennett in 1977 ( Gareth Thomas deputised for the injured Brian O'Driscoll in 2005), the smart money surely stays on Sam Warburton.

Anyway, we shook hands, finally decommissioning one of this column's more lurid literary miskicks. It felt good to tick that box. Just a pity about the other thousand I might not get to.

Irish Independent

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