Brendan O'Brien: Absent Gatland casts long shadow over Aviva as Wales come to town

After 12 years and 151 tests in charge of Wales, Warren Gatland’s Super Rugby coaching career with the Chiefs began with a remarkable comeback victory over the Blues in Auckland.

Brendan O'Brien: Absent Gatland casts long shadow over Aviva as Wales come to town

Warren Gatland’s heavy lifting was already done for the week by the time the Six Nations stretched a limb seven days ago.

After 12 years and 151 tests in charge of Wales, Gatland’s Super Rugby coaching career with the Chiefs began with a remarkable comeback victory over the Blues in Auckland.

Trailing 19-5 at the break, his new boys claimed a 37-29 win that was described as “epic” by one Kiwi outlet. It was also his first ever win as a coach at Eden Park.

Not a bad start but then that’s just what Gatland does.

It took him some time to lift Ireland off the floor back in the day but there was an early hint of recovery when, in his first game, they lost just 18-16 in Paris to a French side that had amassed over 70 points across their first two Five Nations games.

He quickly steered Wasps away from relegation, won an Air New Zealand Cup with Waikato and then he went to Wales.

The Welsh were a mess after a shock World Cup exit to Fiji but they upended all expectations with a defeat of England to start the 2008 Six Nations and finished it with a Grand Slam.

There are four new head coaches operating in the current Six Nations and that alone is a frighteningly high bar for any of them to reach.

Add in Gatland’s achievements as the main man with the British and Irish Lions — a series win in Australia and a stalemate against the All Blacks — and you could argue that there hasn’t been a better coach in the professional era.

Like, who else has enjoyed such success across so many levels of the game and in both hemispheres?

What’s undeniable is that his CV hasn’t engendered the respect it merits. Certainly not outside the Principality.

Caricatured as a clown on the front page of one New Zealand newspaper during the 2017 Lions tour there, his career in Europe was haunted by the sniffy ‘Warrenball’ accusations that persisted through most of his time with Wales.

Sean O’Brien’s criticisms of him and his coaching staff after that tour fed into the perception that Gatland wasn’t in the same bracket of coaching mastermind as someone like Joe Schmidt who, at the time, was still seen as a man who could do no wrong.

What’s clear now is that Wayne Pivac has a job in replacing him.

Pivac is a personable type, a former cop but a ‘good’ cop who will sit down and talk — and listen — to his players. His successes with Scarlets and knowledge of the regional scene are a good start but it will take time to achieve the bond that Gatland seemed to enjoy with his squads.

“It is a challenge because, quite simply, the boys idolised Gats,” said former Wales winger Shane Williams in Dublin this week.

“He was a good coach. He had good methods. He had good people around him like Shaun Edwards, Rob Howley, Robin McBryde and Jenks [Neil Jenkins].

“He kind of formed this team — and I don’t mean team as in the boys on the field — from the physios to the masseuse to everyone else to JR [John Rowlands] who was there cleaning up the bags afterwards.

He formed this team. Everyone trusted Gats massively and Gats trusted the boys.

Pivac may well enjoy a seamless transition. This is an enormous encounter for him and for Andy Farrell after both men enjoyed winning starts against opposition they will always be expected to beat but his Welsh team could easily return home from Ballsbridge tomorrow with a second straight win tucked into their belts.

Still, you can only wonder what landmines Gatland would be laying now were he still here.

For years he needled Irish sensibilities with one-liners and not-so-subtle digs, creating a tension between the two sides and going as far at one point as to suggest that the Welsh enjoyed beating the Irish more than anyone else.

Quite the claim given their neighbours across the Severn.

Gatland even claimed that Schmidt would get more wound up on those weeks when Wales provided the opposition, that his words could drive his fellow Kiwi crazy.

“He might deny that,” he told Newstalk late last year, “but people within the Irish camp are telling me: ‘Please don’t say anything this week, because Joe will go mental about any comments you make’.”

There have been no brickbats thrown in either direction this week. Farrell isn’t nearly as sensitive to this stuff as his predecessor and Pivac lacks the eye for mischief.

It has fallen on the English and Scots to stir up the bad blood this week as they launch barbs at one another across Hadrian’s Wall. Pivac’s teams play a pleasing brand of rugby but the game as a whole is a duller place for Gatland’s absence.


Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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