Tuesday 16 January 2018

Defusing Gatland grudge talk a shrewd move from O'Driscoll

Head Wales coach Warren Gatland at a press conference
Head Wales coach Warren Gatland at a press conference
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

THERE are still 11 days to go until Warren Gatland's Wales take the field at Lansdowne Road, but operation 'Defuse the Hype' is well under way.

Ireland play Scotland and Wales face Italy this weekend, but those feel like curtain-raisers before the main event. The players can take things one game at a time, but everyone else has eyes on Saturday week.

The fixture was the first of Ireland's home games to sell out and, despite the old rivalries with England and France, it captured the imagination as soon as news broke that Brian O'Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip would not be in Gatland's Lions team to face Australia in the third Test in July.

Since then, the reports from Wales are that the fury from Ireland got on the wicks of those inside the camp who firmly believed that Jonathan Davies and Toby Faletau deserved their places in the team.

Meanwhile, the issue has lingered beneath the surface here, with O'Driscoll raising it once again in a Sky Sports interview, before both men went on 'The Late Late Show,' separately, to try and dampen down what most see as a grudge match.

Yesterday, the former Ireland captain did his part in nipping controversy in the bud by staging what is likely to be a rare Six Nations media appearance early and with plenty of time before Wales come to town.

Fourteen years at the top of the rugby tree have left the 35-year-old a savvy operator and, by getting in and out of the spotlight early and dampening down any ill-will with the man who gave him his international debut back in a different century, he played a smart PR move.

Last week, Gatland used the launch of the Six Nations to speak fondly of Ireland and reveal that he had light-heartedly asked that O'Driscoll to do what he could to stop the home crowd from booing him at Lansdowne Road.

Well, his former charge didn't exactly make a direct plea, but he did enough to suggest that he has moved on from the incident, and the implication was that we all should too.

"That's why I'm here this week," he said with a wry smile when the topic eventually reared its head at yesterday's press conference in Maynooth.

"I don't really pay that much attention. What happened happened, I don't have any ill-will towards Warren. It was raw at the time, but time heals wounds and I don't have any animosity towards him.

"I just want to be involved in a team that can beat his team, but that's next week. I can't get into a different team's mentality, but they've Italy this week and I'm sure they're focused on that."


All other attempts to raise the subject were met with a verbal version of that neat sidestep that has become so familiar as O'Driscoll slipped through the cover unscathed.

Whether the two men's attempts to move on will work remains to be seen. Certainly, there is unlikely to be any vitriol aimed at the New Zealander's direction, while booing is hardly the style of the Lansdowne Road Six Nations crowd.

However, a lot of people were hurt on their crowd favourite's behalf back in July. Gatland's decision to snub Ireland's greatest player stung.

He might not have to face any invective, but the Irish crowd love nothing more than a reason to get in early and bring the noise.

The debate will rumble on; the protagonists will rise above it, but the niceties will stop come 2.30 on Saturday week and it is still set to be unmissable.

Irish Independent

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