Sunday 17 December 2017

Alan Quinlan: Losing Ireland job proved to be the making of Warren Gatland

Getting the bullet from the IRFU may have left him with a sour taste but New Zealander was forced to re-evaluate himself and mature. He's not just a better coach now but a better man

Warren Gatland has evolved into a better tactician than he was when he was with Ireland (PA)
Warren Gatland has evolved into a better tactician than he was when he was with Ireland (PA)

Alan Quinlan

After the final whistle, after the humiliation, after the nightmare that threatened to end his coaching career before it had really begun, Warren Gatland stood amongst us.

We were sick, pure and simple. I've been in plenty of losing dressing rooms in my time but never in anything like this. Not before. Nor since.

Argentina. Lens. 1999. World Cup.

A low point not just in Irish rugby's history but also Warren's.

He was emotional when he spoke that night. Simple words came straight from the heart. He didn't point the finger at anyone. Nor did he raise his voice. Instead in this - the darkest moment of his career - he thanked everyone for their efforts.

Did I think then that he'd lead Ireland to their first win in Paris in 28 years just four months later? That he'd turn a losing team into a winning one? That he'd win a league and Heineken Cup double with Wasps? That he'd win two Grand Slams with Wales or lead the Lions to a series win in Australia?

Did anyone - even Warren - believe that?

Back then, there was a simplicity to his methods. You got the sense he considered Irish players to be soft and so he went out of his way to change our psyche, instructing some players to cut their hair tight and apply fake tan for the tour to South Africa in 1998. "We want to look bigger," he said.

In Warren's world, big was good. Trevor Brennan was a favourite. He loved his madness and aggression. Peter Clohessy was another of his go-to guys. The night I was called into his squad for the 1999 World Cup, I made my way up to The Claw's room, opened the door and Warren was there. The coach having the craic in a player's room.

He welcomed me in but he wasn't the type of person back then to mollycoddle any of the new guys. He expected you to get on with the job and while I was a bloke who craved for him to come over, put his arm around my shoulder and tell me he rated me, I just sensed that was never going to happen.

Not then. Later, when he was assistant coach to the Lions in 2009, it was different. More than anyone else, Warren got me selected for that tour and when I was subsequently ruled out with suspension, he was straight on the phone, sympathising, genuinely caring about how I was feeling.

And it was then that it dawned on me.

This guy had evolved from the young man who'd landed the Ireland job by default and who had taken a hands-off approach to coaching when he succeeded Brian Ashton in 1998.

Back then, it was hard to figure him out. Yes, he was popular with the players. He didn't shout, didn't rule by fear yet you felt his presence when he was in a dressing room. Whenever the lip would quiver, you knew he was angry, that there was a lot more depth to the happy-go-lucky persona.


There was genuine respect for him from all of us. We liked the fact he gave his players freedom to express themselves, noted how he'd take a fairly hands-off approach to coaching sessions, but come alive when we were working on the scrum. He liked things physical and loved it when Trevor went charging around the training ground bashing into people. As a team we needed toughening up. Warren did that, and in 2001, his methods seemed to be working.

We won four out of five games in that year's Six Nations and should have won a Grand Slam.

Yet within weeks he got sacked.

As players, we could sense his disappointment but did we enter a period of mourning after he left? I'm lying if we said we did. None of us really knew the story so it was hard for us to determine whether it was right or wrong. All we knew was that Gatty was out and Eddie O'Sullivan was in, that the pair of them were employed in a ruthless business and we quickly moved on.

So did Warren. Wasps called. He answered and once there he turned his anger into brilliant ideas. If he could be accused of being lax in appointing a defence coach when he was in charge of Ireland, then that charge has never been thrown at him since.

He needed Shaun Edwards' expertise. And his loyalty. He needed Rob Howley too. The facts are that Warren is a really good and hugely successful coach - but he is far from a technical expert at the breakdown or a defensive guru.

So - post-Ireland - he surrounded himself with men who could do those jobs, men who he'd challenge and who would challenge him.

After Ireland, he refocused himself. What was he good at? Getting players to buy into a project. Instilling belief into them that if you outwork the opposition, then you have a chance.

He brought those principles with him to Wasps, Wales and the Lions. Yet he did a lot more too.

Defensively, his Welsh teams are better now than his Irish teams were then.

And his evolution as a coach has not been confined to technical issues. In terms of his personality, that has grown too.

I remember one funny incident from his final months in charge. It was the year of the foot and mouth outbreak when we had played two games in the spring and then had to wait until September to finish our Six Nations campaign. He'd picked me for those first two games and I was buzzing.

But then August came and players returned from injury. Still, I was in the squad and hoping to be picked. It was then that Warren gave this big speech, about how the little things mattered to him, how he wanted to see us help out the kit men and the medical guys by loading stuff on and off the team bus. "Quinny," Frankie Sheahan said to me. "We've jobs to do."

All that week, we did them. Noisily. "Give us a hand there Frankie, will you."

"Course I will Quinny. That's what we're here for."

Cocksure we'd make it, having adhered to Warren's 'little details' requests, both of us were dropped. Without a word of explanation. That was how it was back then but part of me just wished he could have taken the time to sit down with me and explain precisely why.

That wasn't Warren, though. He had grown up in a tough rugby culture. There was just this sense that you had to soldier on, toughen up, deal with setbacks as best you can. Was that right or wrong? It was simply how it was.

Fifteen years have passed since and I've spoken to Welsh players about him. "He doesn't rule by fear," they tell me. "But you don't want to piss him off."


They get on well with him and like him for the reasons we liked him too: the fact he cared.

What's clear to me, though, is that he has evolved into a much better tactician now than he was then. His desire for his teams to be physical and confrontational remains. Yet he likes them to think rather than simply bash their way to victory.

He's parked his desire to use mind games too. The man who said 'the one team the Welsh don't like is the Irish' back in 2009, who criticised Joe Schmidt's narrow game-plan last August, is, all of a sudden, learning the art of diplomacy.

"When you criticise the Irish, they produce a big performance," he said two weeks ago, clearly remembering what happened the last time he was in Dublin for a Six Nations game. Wales lost 28-6 that day.

Warren now knows when he make noise and when to hold his counsel and deep down too he probably knows that if his dismissal as Ireland coach left a sour taste, that it has proved to be the best thing that could have happened him. It forced him to re-evaluate himself and improve.

And he has but not enough to stop Ireland winning tomorrow. Two or three points will determine it. 20-17 is my prediction.

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