Everyone was up in arms about it: on the phone, on the phone-in shows, the streets. How could he be cut, with his record? While the guy coming in for him was a capable player, it still didn’t make sense. What kind of idiot felt the team would be better served without his services? November 2001 is a long time ago now, when Warren Gatland was summarily dismissed as Ireland manager, to be replaced by Eddie O’Sullivan. So long that a lot of the people so outraged that O’Driscoll was replaced by Jamie Roberts last week either had either forgotten or didn’t even know that Gatland had once been harshly dispensed too.
Of course there were people who did remember that day of the long knife and somehow suspected that the demotion of O’Driscoll for Saturday’s third Test was some form of vengeance for the rough justice the IRFU dealt Gatland only days after his team had almost beaten the mighty All Blacks and beaten an exceptional England team a month earlier.
In doing so they did a disservice to everyone involved — Gatland, Irish rugby, O’Driscoll and themselves.
Last week, Gatland was in danger or being forever remembered in Ireland as the bollix-fool (take your pick, neither are flattering) who dropped their God, their BOD.
Now he’s known here as the man who got away with dropping Brian O’Driscoll.
Which still isn’t quite right.
Because above all, Irish people should remember Warren Gatland as the man who helped Brian O’Driscoll and Irish rugby by transforming the national team from wooden spoon specialists to a respectable, formidable international force.
It may be hard to comprehend for some of the tweeters who spouted such vitriol against one of the most successful coaches in world rugby but there was a time before Twitter and Irish rugby was a joke for most of it.
When Gatland took over as Irish manager in the spring of 1998, Irish rugby was in a state of perpetual turmoil, turning over a multitude of coaches and players. Scotland hadn’t lost to us in a decade. The hangover of such instability and incompetence initially engulfed Gatland and the 1999 World Cup campaign, but the turn of the millennium would literally herald a new era for Irish rugby, with Gatland at the helm. In Ireland’s next two Six Nation campaigns we would beat France both home and away (that win in 2000 remains our only win in over 40 years in Paris), destroy Wales in Cardiff and foil an England team on the verge of a Grand Slam.
In fact only for that year’s foot and mouth outbreak, we could have won the Slam ourselves. A month later, Ireland were 14 points up on New Zealand before a Jonah Lomu try on the hour-mark turned the game. That Gatland’s future and next contract hinged on that play too seemed incredulous to the public.
Of course Gatland was helped enormously by the influx of a golden generation of young players, most notably one Mr O’Driscoll. Just as Gatland was good for Irish rugby and O’Driscoll, both were very good to him. Who now would gamble on hiring a 30-something coach with no silverware or Test playing experience on his CV? Gatland had never coached before taking up the offer to coach Galwegians, he and his wife packing up their bags and teaching job back in Waikato. A few years later he’d step up to coach Connacht to replace Eddie O’Sullivan; imagine someone of such inexperience getting that job now, when O’Sullivan himself can’t?
Gatland would justify each leap of faith invested in him. The first Irish province to win in France wasn’t Leinster, Munster or Ulster but Gatland’s Connacht. His winning percentage as Irish coach was the best in 30 years. Yet last week we were about to primarily remember him for dropping the same guy he gave his international debut to.
We’ve form in such hysterical, myopic thinking. For many, too many, Mick McCarthy will first and foremost be the man who let his captain walk out on a World Cup, forgetting that McCarthy was this country’s initial Captain Fantastic; that while there have been better Irish players and managers there’s never been a better Irish captain. The greatness of our gods, it seems, can outshine, even obliterate, the goodness of the bloody good.
As it turns out, each of the Gatland decisions of 2001 and 2013 was ultimately justified, just as they were harsh. The younger Gatland wasn’t as technically or defensively astute back then while Eddie O’Sullivan would turn out to have an even greater winning percentage as Irish coach. Warren Gatland would lead the Lions to their first series win since he was back coaching Connacht. He’s a come a long way since those days. So has Irish rugby. We should remember and be grateful to him for that.