Lions call was never anti-Irish – Gatland
WARREN GATLAND believes that his decision not to select Brian O'Driscoll for the deciding Lions Test last summer is "water under the bridge."
The New Zealander is aware that the issue is sure to be dragged up ahead of his Wales side's meeting with Ireland on February 8 and has contacted the former Ireland captain to try and prepare the ground for the inevitable debate around his decision.
Gatland spoke fondly yesterday of Irish rugby's role in his career and the affection he has for the country in which he started his coaching career with Galwegians and Connacht before taking over the national job.
But he accepts that his decision to pick Jonathan Davies for that Sydney clash will linger through to this year's meeting, even if he insists that his call was not in any way "anti-Irish."
The controversial call was a major source of contention in Ireland during the early summer months, with Lions heroes of the past like Keith Wood and Willie John McBride coming out strongly against Gatland.
While the fire has long-since dimmed, the issue is set to be revisited when the two sides meet in 16 days' time and the old wounds are bound to be re-opened.
"People tried to turn it into an anti-Irish thing," he said at yesterday's Six Nations launch. "I'm incredibly indebted to Irish rugby and the opportunities they gave me, starting off in the club I knew among the four regions, coaching Connacht and then giving me a chance as a 34-year-old to be an international coach.
"I look back and I'm incredibly grateful to the chances that Ireland gave me. I'm really looking forward to going back. It's going to put an extra twist on the game, people are going to try to make something out of it, as they always do."
O'Driscoll famously presented Gatland with a Christmas card when the duo met at an official Lions function at No 10 Downing Street, in reference to his previous comments that the coach who had handed him his debut back in 1999 was no longer on his list.
Gatland revealed that he had returned the compliment and included a special plea as part of his message ahead of next month's meeting.
"A couple of weeks after Brian had given me a Christmas card after the Downing Street Lions thing, Donnacha Ryan rang me up and asked me to send Brian a Christmas card, which was a bit of a joke from the Irish boys," he explained.
"So, I sent him a Christmas card, and I wished him and his family well for Christmas and I did ask if he had any influence to try to make sure that the Irish fans didn't boo me too much at the Aviva Stadium.
"I meant it as a joke, it's water under the bridge now and hopefully everyone can move on."
Whether they can or not remains to be seen and with this being O'Driscoll's final Six Nations – and the Wales game already the hottest ticket for the three Dublin games at this year's championship – the debate is likely to be revisited in the coming weeks.