'I thought dropping O'Driscoll was really brave' - Luke Fitzgerald pays tribute to Warren Gatland on Welsh exit
When Warren Gatland says goodbye to northern hemisphere rugby after tomorrow’s 3rd place match against New Zealand, it’s probably fair to say that there won’t be too many tears shed on Irish shores.
Although the Wales coach began his coaching career with Galwegians and also included a stint in charge of Connacht, the messy way his reign with Ireland was ended by the IRFU clearly left a bad taste and there was always an edge to the subsequent matches after he rebuilt his career and returned to the international scene with Wales.
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To put it into perspective, Ireland had won 12 of the previous 15 clashes with Wales (excluding World Cup warm-ups) before his appointment 12 years ago. Since? Wales 7 (including that devastating 2011 World Cup quarter-final), Ireland 5 with one draw.
The fact that Gatland unceremoniously ended Brian O'Driscoll's Lions career by dropping the then Ireland captain for the final decisive test on the 2013 Australian tour was also almost taken as a personal affront in Irish circles, despite the match delivering a series victory once the final whistle went.
Appreciation of his success has always seemed churlish on this side of the Irish Sea but Galtand has found an ally in O'Driscoll's former team-mate Luke Fitzgerald, who paid tribute to the departing coach on this week's The Left Wing.
"I really like him. He seems a bit of a marmite character for some people but I always got on well with him and thought he was a nice guy. Kind of quiet and kept himself to himself but ruthless. I love that," Fitzgerald told the Independent.ie rugby podcast, presented in association with Aldi.
"I thought dropping O'Driscoll was really brave and probably the right decision, as much as it would have been really difficult for Drico to accept that. Jonathan Davies was an outstanding footballer at that time. I thought that was a brilliant decision and really brave.
"He's done that a lot throughout his career, he's been really ruthless when he's had to be. I think his legacy with Wales...I mean they've reached a really high level without much support from the provincial system, that hasn't been that strong."
With Gatland due to take charge of the Chiefs in his native New Zealand next season, he'll be returning to familiar ground. The franchise are based in his native Hamilton and the Super Rugby outfit share a ground with the Waikato club that the Kiwi made his name as a player and had his first success as a coach.
And Fitzgerald has little doubt that Gatland's return home will be a successful one despite his decision to take 12 months out from August 2020 to lead the Lions for one last time when they tour South Africa the following year.
"He's been successful everywhere he's been. Waikato, was that the first time in 30 years they won the National Provincial Championship in New Zealand? That was a huge win and put him on the map as a coach," he continued.
"Wasps, he was brilliant, Ireland, he was excellent as well. It's the consistency throughout. I love that he picked a brand of rugby and just stuck with it.
"He's one of those couches that strikes me as a guy that thinks 'What have I got and will work with this group of players?' and doesn't worry overly about the opposition. He seems like the kind of guy that picks one or two things the opposition are good at and focusses on trying to take those things away.
"With Ireland it was always when we went into the air. He's a great record against Joe Schmidt in the really tough games, the big ones. He sticks to his principles and the players love that about him."