Tuesday 24 April 2018

Gatland has mastered all the tricks on both sides of the white line

Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Wales head coach Warren Gatland
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

At the official dinner on the night of the Ireland versus Wales Six Nations game in 2008, the rigmarole of speeches and presentations were as nothing compared to the most interesting set-piece of the night: the meeting in public of Eddie O'Sullivan and Warren Gatland.

It was Gatland's first season in charge of Wales. In late 2001 he had been turfed from the Ireland job, with O'Sullivan succeeding him. Gatland's nose was significantly out of joint at the role he felt his assistant had played in those musical chairs.

When he came back to Ireland with Wasps in 2004, beating Munster in a thrilling Heineken Cup semi-final in Lansdowne Road, we had been presented with one of those snapshots where you couldn't even see the cat's face for the cream.

It was Munster's fifth year running to come up short in the last four of that competition. And having been in the driving seat against Wasps, you could have forgiven them for turning Euro sceptic on the spot. When a Limerick journalist asked Gatland if he felt any sympathy for Munster at this latest failure, the Kiwi looked like his enjoyment of the occasion had just reached a whole new level.

It wasn't dissimilar in the Shelbourne Hotel on that night in 2008. It was O'Sullivan's duty to scuttle over to Gatland's table to ask his opposite number up to the bar for a swifty. All eyes in the room were on the pair as O'Sullivan, the vanquished, led the way to the bar, looking like he wasn't too sure if Gatland, the victor, had abandoned halfway. Wales secured the Grand Slam a week later.

This is Gatland's 10th year in the Wales job. Between the two Grand Slams and a Championship title picked up on that watch, and his success with the Lions in Australia and New Zealand - a series win and a draw back to back - he has established himself as a uniquely experienced and successful coach. Steve Hansen has a staggering 15 years at Test level, between head coach in Wales and New Zealand, either side of assisting Graham Henry with the All Blacks, but Gatland's three Lions tours, 2009 as assistant coach, give him something different.

Interestingly, two of those three tours had Irish chapters which were unplanned plotlines in the story. In Australia in 2013 he made a very brave decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll for the third and deciding Test. Had it gone south he would have been lacerated. He was lacerated anyway in this country during a frenzied blast that saw talk radio with the volume up full.

More recently he had that little spat with Sean O'Brien. The Ireland flanker was scathing about the performance of some of the coaching staff on the New Zealand tour. In response, Gatland questioned O'Brien's professionalism.

Over the course of a coaching career that kicked off in Glenina with the Galwegians job in 1989 - he picked that up as an add-on to the Connacht job, when the province abruptly stopped negotiating with then coach, one Eddie O'Sullivan - Warren Gatland has learned a load about how to manipulate the media.

We remember well a nugget he gave this newspaper, just eight months into the Ireland job, in autumn 1998: "I think it's time we looked at the structure at the top (of the IRFU)," he said. "I'd like us to take a lead from New Zealand, South Africa and Australia where there's a CEO and a board of management. The committee can run the AIL and the professionals can run the top team."

On the money or what? Of course pointing that out to the committee dinosaurs via the pages of a national newspaper was like closing the gates on Jurassic Park.

He continued his blunt strategy when it came to a contract extension. The union were shy about coming across with the kind of longevity he wanted, and under the cover of a fairly thin veil he made his point via the media. All of which contributed to his demise in Ireland - and ultimately his spectacular rebirth beyond.

Since then Gatland has bobbed up and down on the media tide. He can be extremely adept at creating a mini-series in the run-up to a Test match, the sole aim of which is to deflect attention from his players so they can get on with the job.

Moments after the final whistle in Twickenham last weekend he made the opening argument in the case of Wales versus the TMO. The case was settled by midweek, in his favour. It didn't affect the result, but certainly it created a strong impression of a team that had been robbed rather than one that had forgotten where they left their wallets.

It had been a hard loss to endure. Having conceded just two penalties against the relentless juggernaut that is England, in Twickenham, Gatland needed to frame the story the right way, and he did just that.

In the interests of selling newspapers - a noble pursuit, undervalued in modern society - we look forward to how Gatland will present the Welsh case en route to Lansdowne Road. Between himself and Joe Schmidt there is nothing of the enmity that existed, and perhaps still does, with Eddie O'Sullivan, but he will come up with something. And if they win on Saturday he will enjoy the post-match pints as much as a decade ago.

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