Thursday 14 December 2017

Warren Gatland primed to come out swinging from red corner

Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, here at the Aviva Stadium back in August, renew their rivalry at the same venue on Sunday (SPORTSFILE)
Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt, here at the Aviva Stadium back in August, renew their rivalry at the same venue on Sunday (SPORTSFILE)
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

He's been as polite as a first-day concierge so far but, when Warren Gatland touches down in Dublin, it tends to feel as if the city is keyed to sleep beneath a full moon.

His sweet-talking just ratchets up apprehension. Ireland must be considered tournament favourites, he declares. Referee Jerome Garces is an exemplar of all that is good in the world. Wales store "a lot of fear" about Sunday's Six Nations opener. Short of taking time out to light candles, he could not communicate deeper wariness or respect.

So where on earth is the pantomime villain?

With gunpowder decommissioned, Gatland brings on goosebumps. He is Jack Nicholson in a Santa suit. Today, he is recognised as one of the world's great coaches, a man who won a Grand Slam within three months of taking over Wales, who - before that - lifted Wasps from the foot of the English Premiership to win three consecutive titles and a European Cup. He is that modern rarity too of a winning Lions coach.

Before Wales signed him up in '07, Gatland rejected England's overtures for a position subsequently given to Rob Andrew, remarking that he "wasn't ready for a job in a suit".

But Ireland? We cut him loose. We thanked him for making us structured and obstinate in an environment of institutional chaos, then gave the gig to his assistant. And Gatland's departure broke few dressing-room hearts, given his players regarded Eddie O'Sullivan as more technically proficient.


"From a coaching perspective, he was miles ahead of Gatty," Shane Horgan recalls in Tom English's fascinating 'No Borders - Playing Rugby for Ireland'.

Gatland was just 34 when parachuted into the Irish job. He'd actually played for Galwegians against some of the players he would now name in national squads. Anthony Foley recalls an informality to his management style that, at the time, felt the perfect antidote to what had been regarded as Brian Ashton's cold distance.

"At times, he was almost too pally, drinking pints and playing cards with us and bumming fags off Claw and Hendo," Foley reflected in 'Axel - A Memoir'. "But he knew where to draw the line and we respected him."

Fair to say that nobody foresaw back then the coaching colossus of today.

Gatland is rightly favourite to lead the Lions to his native New Zealand next year and, for all his justifiable grumbles about a penal tour schedule, we ought not doubt the personal weight he would place on masterminding a first touring win there since 1971. Despite leading Waikato to provincial success in '06, he returned to northern hemisphere rugby largely because he was overlooked for any significant posts at home.

If there is a country outside of Ireland in which Gatland bristles to prove a point then, it is almost certainly his own.

The rogue we know (as distinct from this week's pussycat) likes a bludgeoning dimension to his team and his dialogue. He has an environmentalist's take on the best use of hurt. Recycle, recycle, recycle.

And everything he's achieved in the game since being dismissed by IRFU committee men he so palpably despised has carried a sense of vindication.

In English's book, he recalls Wednesday night meetings in Dublin, being grilled by people he openly regarded as deluded. Men hopelessly chained to the past. Gatland says that he would go to those meetings equipped with fact-based homework only to encounter people armed with little more than bottomless self-regard and misty-eyed nostalgia.

"You'd have done all your work, all your analysis, all your reviews, you had all your information and you're sitting there discussing the game with guys who didn't have the information," he recalled. "I found that frustrating. Then they'd go, 'In my day, when we played Wales in the Sixties' and blah, blah, blah, and, 'This is what we used to do.' I was talking to a group of guys who didn't understand the modern game."

The day in '04 he led Wasps to a Heineken Cup semi-final defeat of Munster at Lansdowne Road, he told John Hayes and Anthony Foley that the best part of his job in England was not being answerable to a committee anymore.

Does he still carry those wounds today?

After Wales' narrow defeat of Ireland during the '08 Six Nations, in a game widely depicted as a "grudge match" between him and former assistant, O'Sullivan, Gatland told Ronan O'Gara that he'd been surprised by "how little rugby" Ireland had played. Last August, after a World Cup warm-up victory in Dublin, his take on Joe Schmidt's team? "I don't think Ireland play a lot of rugby!"

Such observations might not necessarily have been invalid on either occasion, but it is hard to escape the suspicion of a man who does not forget here.

In game-day mode, he can radiate the air of a relentlessly adversarial figure, someone programmed to believe that no self-respecting coach should leave a press conference without a piece of furniture sticking out of their arm. Hence, his baiting of opponents is legendary.

Declan Kidney, ordinarily tranquil as a monk, was said to have been infuriated by some of the verbal incendiaries tossed his way in the build-up to Ireland's Grand Slam game in Cardiff seven years ago. And just this week, Gordon D'Arcy recounted the preamble to another Ireland contest at the Millennium Stadium and the extraordinary image of Gatland standing in a corridor, shouting the odds as the Irish team jogged back in after their warm-up.

He has developed a range of provocations so bottomless that even he, occasionally, seems mildly disarmed by its breadth. And, it's true, occasionally there's not much elegance in how some of us respond.

This writer once likened his grumpiness on all things Irish to that of a "menopausal warthog" whilst colleague Neil Francis more recently suggested that Gatland possessed "the intellectual properties of a tub of Flora". Hardly either correspondent's finest literary work, yet Gatland has that effect on people.

To those who know him best, however, he is seen as innately decent, someone who puts great store on loyalty and trust. As Ireland coach, he made a point of encouraging players to help kitman, Patrick 'Rala' O'Reilly, with any heavy lifting, yet placed high emphasis too on a need for self-sufficiency in the people around him.

He adheres to the old Kevin Heffernan philosophy that a good big 'un will always be preferable to a good little 'un.

Wales, thus, come with a big side this weekend because that is how Gatland likes it. Winning the physical battle is a fundamental of what he demands and he will, accordingly, be unapologetic about the likelihood of his back-row targeting Jonathan Sexton on Sunday. If there is an Irish nose bloodied, don't expect Gatland standing by with a clean hanky.


Next to Schmidt's, his personality can bear all the diplomatic qualities of a glass bottle flung against a wall. Yet, he is innately shrewd too, a fact franked by the tactical outsmarting of Kidney in the 2011 World Cup quarter-final.

Mental and physical toughness will always be bottom-line demands in his dressing-room though and, as an Irish audience will know too well, his decision-making isn't inclined towards the sentimental. His dropping of Brian O'Driscoll from the Lions' match-day squad for the triumphant Third Test victory against Australia in 2013 registered here as some kind of national outrage.

Gatland risked personal ridicule by picking ten Welshmen for that game, yet the Lions went on to register a Test record 41 points in victory.

As O'Driscoll himself joked on Newstalk last Wednesday, the "proof was in the pudding".

At some point this weekend, Gatland will most probably revert to John Wayne mode, yelling at the cops outside to come and get him. This is his tournament, you see. In the Six Nations, nobody looks to the long-term, nobody buys a pension. It's just eyeball-popping fury from first whistle and, historically, few have done that better than Gatland's Wales, winning three Championships, including two post-World Cup Grand Slams.

Both he and Schmidt have gentlemens' agreements now to be released by their respective Unions if invited to coach the Lions next year. So Sunday has the faint air of a shoot-out here, the victor knowing their price has tightened considerably on being in New Zealand 16 months from now.

Expect Warren Gatland to come out swinging.

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