Thursday 17 October 2019

Alan Quinlan: Write calculating Gatland off at your peril because then he has you exactly where he wants you

King of mind games is a much better head coach than he gets credit for

Warren Gatland. Photo: PA Wire
Warren Gatland. Photo: PA Wire
Alan Quinlan

Alan Quinlan

"In the big leagues everyone has ability. It always comes down to mind games. Whoever is more mentally strong, wins."

- Muhammad Ali

Twenty years ago today a 34-year-old Kiwi was handed the keys to Irish rugby's prized asset, tasked with turning things around with a group of players struggling for traction.

The appointment raised eyebrows - he was Nick Popplewell's senior by just seven months, while he had just a few years to spare over the likes of Paddy Johns, Mick Galwey and Peter Clohessy.

While the new boss may have been light on experience, he got through some heavy lifting and seed-sowing that would ultimately help propel Irish rugby towards some of its most memorable harvests.

An opening 18-16 defeat to France certainly wasn't monumental but it was far from the biennial Paris mauling we had come to expect.

I was in the Stade de France with the Ireland 'A' team after being beaten by our French counterparts the night before, and you could see the belief he had already instilled in the team in less than a fortnight.

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Paris was pretty much a write-off in those days; and Warren Gatland's first game in charge was the closest Ireland had run Les Bleus on their own patch in 18 years - a sign of things to come.

Tell Warren Gatland he can't do something, and the words 'red rag' and 'bull' come to mind.

Proving doubters wrong has always been a primary motivator for Gatland and it is one of main reasons why he has outlasted all of his peers in the coaching game.

Clive Woodward, Jean-Claude Skrela, Jim Telfer and Kevin Bowring were his contemporaries in the 1998 Five Nations, Gatland having succeeded Brian Ashton after Ireland's second-round defeat to Scotland.

Ten years later, after picking Wasps up from the bottom of the English game and charging them all the way to the top of the European queue, Gatland began his first Six Nations at the Wales helm when his opposition coaches were Ashton, Eddie O'Sullivan, Marc Lievremont, Nick Mallett and Frank Hadden, none of whom he has faced for years.

Today, he takes charge of Wales in a Test match for the 100th time. It's an extraordinary achievement in the fickle, high-pressured modern game.

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Despite the unfair reputation Gatland has for being a one-dimensional coach, his remarkable longevity would be impossible were it not for his ability to evolve. With Ireland and for the majority of his time with Wales, he has favoured an abrasive game-plan, but he has proven, most recently when using two playmakers with the Lions last summer, and a more expansive approach with Wales against Scotland, that he is willing to tailor his tactics to suit the strengths of the personnel he has available.

The evolution of Warren's coaching career would have been impossible if it wasn't for his Darwinian beliefs - and he does his utmost to ensure his players are fit enough not just to survive, but to thrive.

His training camps are notorious for their brutality; memories of a three-week trip to Poland with the Ireland squad still haunt me.

He is always desperate to get an edge on his opposition, whether that comes from the aerobic benefits of a training camp in the Swiss Alps prior to the 2015 World Cup, the annual Poland pilgrimages for cryotherapy, or before Ireland's 1998 South Africa tour where he encouraged the players to shave their heads and apply fake tan in a bid to appear bigger and more intimidating in the eyes of the 'Boks.

Gatland's love for psychological warfare is well documented; every year we know it's coming but he always manages to push the narrative of the week the way he wants.

He might not have been the greatest man-manager in his early days, as he tended to focus more on the collective, but Gatland has always had an incredible ability to get inside the heads of his players.

Motivation is never an issue when he is around; it doesn't matter how menial the task may appear because he is always watching out for the players who do that bit extra for the team.

The foot-and-mouth-interrupted Six Nations of 2001 was a prime example.

I started in the February victories against Italy and France and we finally reconvened at a team meeting in Limerick the following August, as we prepared to play our remaining three fixtures in September and October.

That afternoon Warren emphasised how extra bits of work around the camp would not go unnoticed; whether that was helping our kitman Rala with all of the gear or bringing in medical supplies - whatever needed to be done.

I latched on to his words that day, and between myself and Frankie Sheahan there wasn't a bag taken off the bus that didn't touch our hands over the next few weeks; not that it did either of us any good - he was on the bench for the games against Scotland, Wales and England and I didn't even make the match-day 22!

Gatland loves making people think and he knows that if he stirs the pot first, he can set the agenda and his players are unlikely to get rattled by anything in the build-up.

It is nine years since he caught everyone's attention by claiming that, "of all the teams in the Six Nations, the Welsh players dislike Irish players the most".

That jibe may not have prevented Declan Kidney's side from ultimately claiming the Grand Slam in 2009 but it certainly ruffled a few feathers on this side of the Irish Sea.

He's shrewd, calculating and in the game long enough to know how important the little victories are.

The Gatland way is all about creating a united front, developing a deep bond within a group through lung-bursting training sessions followed by a meal and a few pints together.

He doesn't rant and rave but he expects big things from his players; if he considers you good enough for international selection, you better justify his faith.

Gatland used to largely take a backwards step at training sessions, preferring instead to observe how his players reacted to certain situations, all the time assessing their body language, attitude, and character.

The Kiwi loves to counter-punch. Being backed into a corner doesn't faze him because he always believes he can manage his way out of it and land a few blows on the way.

He possesses a resilience and a deep well of self-belief that he channels into his teams and it's impossible not to admire that.

Your average 34-year-old retired rugby player would tremble at the thought of taking on the Ireland head coach's role, but not Warren.

His record speaks for itself, and yet Gatland continues to be written off by many in both hemispheres.

The way he was treated last summer in his homeland was appalling at times and yet he produced an unlikely drawn series against the greatest team in the world.

They were understandable question marks about Warren Gatland's appointment 20 years ago, and somehow, despite his vast array of achievements since, he still has his doubters.

The worrying thing is, that suits him just fine.

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