Wednesday 11 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: Different characters, different styles, same drive from Schmidt and Gatland

New Zealanders have enjoyed huge success but their styles are underpinned by different approaches

Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt at the Aviva Stadium in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt at the Aviva Stadium in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

Warren Gatland might allow himself a smile if he re-read his newspaper column from Monday, October 1, 2007. It was the day after Ireland were knocked out of the Rugby World Cup and Gatland had a go at the IRFU's decision to give Eddie O'Sullivan a new four-year contract which would have kept him in the job for over 10 years.

"Everyone must be questioned," Gatland said. "It requires a special personality to be given a six-year term as national coach. Not too many are up to the task. Ten years, well, that requires a master tactician."

A month later, Gatland was offered the position of Wales head coach. Over ten years on, he's still in the job.

Two different kinds of tacticians will be in the hot seats at Lansdowne Road today. It will be Joe Schmidt's fourth Six Nations game trying to outwit Gatland's Wales (Rob Howley was in charge last year when Gatland was Lions coach) with the ledger reading won one, lost one, drawn one.

Even though there's only two years and five days of an age-gap between the two New Zealanders, Gatland (54) had a considerable head start on Schmidt (52).

When Schmidt travelled around Europe to increase his knowledge as a young coach, he visited clubs like Stade Francais, Graeme Souness and Newcastle United FC and he also stopped off at Wasps to see how Gatland was turning the English club into a winning machine.

Schmidt and Gatland know how to make a first impression: they both won titles in their first years in charge with Wales and Ireland respectively. But the most striking aspect is how different their styles are.

Peter O'Mahony elected not to venture beyond the safety of "they're different" when asked what it was like to work under Gatland compared to Schmidt. The Ireland head coach has a reputation as a full-on, hands-on coach both on the training pitch and in the tactics room.

Being as actively involved at training as Schmidt is isn't Gatland's style - his strength lies with managing. "I pride myself on understanding the dynamics of a team, and getting them right for big matches," Gatland said in his Lions diary In the Line of Fire.

Seán O'Brien put himself in the line of fire when he criticised the Lions coaching in New Zealand last summer. Lions tours are different beasts to national jobs but Paul O'Connell picked up a few things from Gatland on the Lions Tour in 2013.

"I liked the way Gats did things, simplifying the game and encouraging people to play," Paul O'Connell said in his autobiography. "He talked about the short-cuts that could make a difference - reducing the distance from one ruck to another, winning a kick-chase by being ready to fire as soon as the ball left the out-half's boot, and taking the shortest route possible. The game-plan was about tiring the opposition out and making them pay."

Fitter, faster, stronger has worked for Gatland. He took an O'Connell phrase, 'let's be the best at everything that requires no talent', and uses it regularly with Wales. While Schmidt always placed a premium on skill-set, fitness has always been a favourite with Gatland.

"We've always backed our ability to play for 80 minutes and we've felt we've been fitter than the English," Gatland stated before Wales game with England.

Wales are more than just about fitness but publicly stating how fit they are is Gatland's style. While Schmidt can have a knack of talking things down, Gatland does the opposite. When the forecast for Wales was gloom for this Six Nations, a tanned-looking Gatland turned up for the tournament launch like a master salesman.

Forget injuries to countless Lions, Gatland had the Scarlets game-plan, he had the Lions inside information play-book, he was reinventing himself more times than Madonna knew how and he wanted you to know about it.

"You're always learning, you're always changing, evolving as a coach and trying to be as open as you can," Gatland said. "From a Lions perspective getting information and knowledge not just from the other coaches but from the other players as well."

Gatland names the Wales team on a Tuesday of a Six Nations week - earlier in the week than any other coach. Maybe it's not even openness, more of a confidence that he has nothing to hide because he thinks his team will win anyway. Schmidt runs off a different riff. During the last RWC, Schmidt was asked about the football way of teams not being named until an hour before kick-off and you could see he would like the idea so determined is he to keep as much as possible in-house for as long as possible.

Schmidt and Gatland also have different approaches to the media. Gatland was asked on Tuesday what advice he would give to a young coach.

"Do your best to deal as positively as you can with the media," Gatland laughed in response. Schmidt keeps his media dealings to a minimum while Gatland seems to view press conference as a starting gun for game-time.

Their rivalry didn't stop Gatland from wanting Schmidt to be one of his assistants for last year's Lions Tour. Schmidt took less than 24 hours to decline. When Gatland visited the Ireland camp he sat in on the Tuesday morning team meeting but it seems Schmidt wasn't going to give Gatland any inside info here.

"Funnily enough, I'd heard from someone that the team meeting which they'd normally have on a Tuesday morning had been moved to the night before!" Gatland said in his book.

Gatland and Schmidt's contracts finish after the 2019 RWC. Both have stayed longer than they initially expected to. Both will probably return home to new coaching roles. Both deserve to get a shot at being head coach of New Zealand some day.

Today will be Gatland's 100th game as Wales boss, it will be Schmidt's 53rd Ireland game. Schmidt insisted today will be "a lot less about the coaches. It'll be all about the players". But Schmidt and Gatland's contrasting styles add to the fascination around this game.

Schmidt would probably hate the thought of a piece like this about the two of them. Gatland? He might smile at how he went on to become the master tactician he described over 10 years ago.

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