Friday 19 April 2019

Brendan Fanning: 'The man who got the ball rolling'

Joe Schmidt has picked up the silverware but Warren Gatland started Ireland's rugby revolution

A general view inside the stadium. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
A general view inside the stadium. Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

We don't keep an exact count of these things but yesterday was the 20-somethingth time of fetching up to this theatre by the Taff. Never has it been so miserable. Once as a punter, the rest as a hack, the visits started when it was the National Stadium, then the rebuilt and rebranded Millennium and now the Principality: same gaff, new name over the door.

In that time there has been all sorts of entertainment on offer, across a range of competitions from a schools international in front of a few hundred up to World Cup thrillers in a packed house. Mostly though it's been about Wales versus Ireland in the Championship. How appropriate then that yesterday two men who have given such momentum to the evolution of modern Irish rugby should sign off their Six Nations careers with this fixture.

Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt have 10 and nine seasons respectively at the coalface in Ireland. Gatland was first out of the traps, arriving here in 1989 as a player-coach with Galwegians when the game was still a long way off professionalism. When he left - shunted by the IRFU - in 2001, Joe Schmidt was back in New Zealand, still a schoolteacher, two years away from his first pro coaching gig as an assistant with Bay of Plenty. They were both at or close enough to coaching's base camp when they first got involved over here. By comparison, though, Gatland was learning as fast as he could run.

That wouldn't have bothered him unduly. His All Black front-row partner Graham Purvis always reckoned this particular hooker was a sponge for information, always alive to ways of doing things better. For Gatland the Galwegians gig that started it all was hardly intimidating. He had come over as back-up to Sean Fitzpatrick on the All Blacks' spring tour. A Galwegians clubman had bumped into Craig Dowd when the tourists were in London and asked if any of them might be interested in a club gig in Ireland, and by the time they arrived in the Sportsground to play Connacht, Gatland had one cheek of his backside in the coach's chair in Glenina. He was 26.

It was a great opportunity for himself and his missus Trudy to sample something different. They parked their teaching jobs in Waikato and immersed themselves in Galway. He thrived because on top of his rugby contribution as player-coach he was sociable, and adjusted his demands to what the players might reasonably commit. That was untypical of antipodean coaches at the time in this country. Gatland could manage people.

He turned Galwegians into an AIL side - there were only two national divisions back then and they were stuck in the Connacht Senior League when he arrived - and nobody liked playing them. Four years into the gig, tragedy struck when his first-born child, Shauna, died aged four months, from spina bifida. The club parked their ambitions and urged the Gatlands to head home to their support network in NZ, a gesture they appreciated.

Ireland manager Joe Schmidt. Photo: Getty
Ireland manager Joe Schmidt. Photo: Getty

That would have helped in him answering an emergency call three years later. Connacht, who were about to embark on a pre-season tour to Sweden, were struggling to reach agreement with their coach Eddie O'Sullivan over a contract when they got the bright idea of seeing how Gatland was fixed. He got on a plane a couple of days later. He had just turned 33.

On a larger scale Gatland did for the province what he had done for the club. It was a hard working environment but players and fans loved his enthusiasm and his ability to understand what they were about. Again, emotional IQ was an easy reach.

In 1997/'98 Connacht did the unthinkable and topped their Challenge Cup pool of Northampton, Bégles Bordeaux and Nice. They finished that group by winning in Franklin's Gardens. The run would end on a cold night in Agen but classic of Gatland teams, they were competitive. They were the first of the Irish provinces to win in France. At that stage the Brave and the Faithful bandwagon hadn't been painted let alone left Limerick to support a team who had yet to qualify for a Heineken Cup quarter-final.

Sure enough, when the Brian Ashton affair with Ireland came to an abrupt end in early 1998, the Connacht coach was the obvious candidate to take over the reins. It was a good time to take the top job, not because he had a deep well of coaching experience - it was a puddle - but because Ashton, who had written the book on coaching, had been such a disaster, as had his manager, Pa Whelan.

Wales manager Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty
Wales manager Warren Gatland. Photo: Getty

Gatland's first job was to try to put some shape on the team for the next game. France away. Sweet Jesus, no one in their right minds wanted to go to Paris in those days on rugby business. In jig time he read it right. He gave the team a simple game plan, and, critically, the belief that if they followed it they would be competitive. France were blessed to survive on an 18-16 scoreline. Our predictions had entertained a gap of 50 points.

By that stage in his career Warren Gatland knew he had found his true calling. He was good with the players and good with the media. Not only would he give quality off-the-record briefings but if the info was delivered in a lounge bar he knew where his wallet was, a unique occurrence in our relationship with Kiwis at that time. Where it got a bit skewed, however, was in his belief that the media en bloc would wear the jersey in the press box.

Of more importance was his failure to play the game with the blazers in the IRFU. Naturally enough it was galling for him to have to beg for basic supports to be put in place for the team - like a scrummaging machine - and to have to sit down with men who had lost touch with the nuts and bolts, and explain his game-plan. On the night before a Test match. It was shameful that the IRFU still acted that way, but the emotional intelligence that had stood the coach so well in his dealings with players was harder to summon up with the blazers. Instead of turning it into a charade that he could control he left them in no doubt he thought they were spanners.

That made it easy for them to sack him. By then, in 2001, he had been forced into taking Eddie O'Sullivan on board as his assistant. They had little in common. The assistant was more organised and structured, and far better at making the committee men feel like seasoned timbers of support than thorny branches to be cut off. The end for Gatland came at a meeting in Lansdowne Road where, thinking he was getting a contract extension, he came out with a P45. He was traumatised by the experience, and embittered. And much wiser for it.

Ireland had been lucky he was around when first they needed him. O'Sullivan replacing the head coach had more to do with planning - never the union's strong suit - than luck. The two men really didn't like each other, though, and Gatland carried with him this clear vision of O'Sullivan's role in his sacking. We remember bumping into Gatland at a Six Nations launch some years later, when he had taken over the Wales job.

"How's Eddie getting on?" he asked. "What's he doing these days?"

Nine years would pass before Schmidt arrived in Leinster. If Gatland had been on the bridge when Ireland were being tossed around the seas like a rag doll - the defeat by Argentina in Lens in the 1999 World Cup was a perfect storm - then the picture looked a lot calmer when Schmidt succeeded Michael Cheika. Leinster had won their first Heineken Cup in 2009. Munster had won two of the previous three European titles. In the previous 10 Six Nations championships, starting with Gatland, then O'Sullivan and on to Declan Kidney, Ireland been out of the top three just once. Two Triple Crowns were worthy of record at the time, if not now, and the Grand Slam in 2009 was epic. So it wasn't, like Gatland in his time, a case of breathing life into a patient who was on the flat of his back.

A different challenge for a very different man. Schmidt and Gatland are compatriots born within a couple of years of each other, North Islanders, and rugby nuts, but they operate with different tools. And the blades Schmidt pulled out of his kitbag were exactly what Leinster needed.

His coaching CV when he fetched up was ordinary enough for most of us not to know who he was when Leinster had announced him as the heir apparent months before succeeding Cheika. True, he had been on hand with Clermont as assistant to Vern Cotter in turning around that club's staggering capacity to blow teams away en route to the Top 14 final, and then turn the weapon on themselves.

His pro rugby involvement before leaving New Zealand for France had been as an assistant in Bay of Plenty and then the Blues. He earned the respect of those he worked with but it wasn't as if the rugby world had been beating a path to his door. It would have been natural then for him to pander to the hierarchy in the Leinster dressing room when handing out hard words for dropped balls. One of the first markers laid down was calling out Brian O'Driscoll on stuff a player of his ability should have been doing better.

Leinster players had a history of canning coaches they didn't like or didn't rate. One day during Gary Ella's short tenure we got a call from one of the lesser lights in said changing room giving out yards about the behaviour of the neon names. Kidney left early of his own accord, like Ella after just a season, but there was a rump of the lads that hadn't been won over.

So Schmidt could have gone down the popularity route. Instead he backed himself. And once he had got over a sticky opening patch where Leinster lost three of their opening four games, he started knocking off trophies like he was the coconut shy king of the funfair. He was unique among coaches across Irish sport in the way he enjoyed absolute confidence among what nowadays are called stakeholders. The players swallowed whole whatever he was feeding them, knowing that it would be nutritious; the fans feted him for his success; the media hung on his every word. His combination of detail and drive made him a phenomenon.

Whereas Gatland had been about making Ireland respectable, Schmidt's mission was to make them feared. Behind the scenes he kept players on a very short leash, and made no apologies for doing so. When they would get stuff wrong as a result of not having swotted sufficiently the previous night he would lacerate them. As part of the preparation for the last World Cup Ireland ran a training session, prior to the Italy game, against Harlequins at the Stoop. At one point Luke Fitzgerald ran a support line which to this day he thinks was spot on. Schmidt thought differently and went through him for a short cut. While the other Irish players didn't seem surprised by the coach's reaction one of the locals was gobsmacked. "I've never seen so many senior players so shit scared in all my life," he said.

In public Schmidt comes across as mild mannered and without ego. We were interviewing him one day in the old Berkeley Court hotel, in an alcove we thought sufficiently out of the way as to deter punters, when over comes this bloke urging him to run for president. "Thank you Joe," he gushed. "Thank you for everything you've done for this country."

Jaysus. As we desperately suppressed the urge to tell the man to get lost, Schmidt palmed him off with kind words that sent him away confirmed in the notion that Ireland's coach was the nicest man alive. Yet another satisfied customer.

Gatland, in his Ireland incarnation, never invested much time or energy in public relations. Schmidt has been a master at it. Coaching sessions or after-dinner speaking for clubs around the country are done gracefully, and gratis. Everyone goes away, like the painful intruder in the Berkeley Court, with an enhanced view of the man. When it comes to the corporate stuff, the business breakfasts where the IRFU need him to entertain and impress the folks whose cash pays for the game, then he carries that off with aplomb as well.

His greatest achievement has been in making enough omelette to feed a nation while breaking so few eggs. You wonder does Gatland ever pass comment on this in those moments when they make small talk before big games. If they are not talking about retractable roofs. Yesterday was the seventh time the two men met over a Test match. Two of those were in the antiseptic category of World Cup warm-ups - a third looms in August - but of the Championship meetings Cardiff has been a barren place for Schmidt, the only ground on the Six Nations circuit where he hasn't got the job done.

For Gatland, beating Ireland - or Irish provinces when he was with Wasps - has been like bumping into an old school teacher who said you'd never amount to anything, when in fact you'd conquered a whole hill of beans. He holds on to his Ireland coaching experience as a discomfort blanket.

It got a good soaking yesterday but he won't have minded too much. Between Wasps and Wales and the Lions, Warren Gatland has had a few good days out but this - his third Grand Slam - was hugely enjoyable. Not only were his team never trailing, they were never troubled. Supported by all the vital signs coming from his stats team, he would want to have been unfeasibly pessimistic to see this one sliding down the drain, such was his team's dominance. And how sweet that it was against Ireland.

And indeed against Schmidt. The Ireland coach's career has been punctuated on countless occasions by reports of his cleverness winning the day. We first saw it with Leinster - brilliantly detailed set-piece moves that filleted teams with minimum fuss and maximum planning - and then with Ireland. But yesterday was about Gatland getting everything right. Schmidt chose the nature of the battle by insisting the stadium roof be left open. Gatland determined the scale of war by bringing a biblical onslaught on Ireland.

KIWI RIVALS’ SIX NATIONS RECORDS

Gatland vs Schmidt

Matches: 60-30

Won: 42-21

Drew: 1-1

Lost: 17-8

Win %: 70.83-71.67

Championships: 4-3

Grand Slams: 3-1

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