Not this side of the Irish Sea, at least.
On Saturday, Gatland will return to Dublin to face his former employers once again. It will be a milestone game for the New Zealander as he coaches Wales for the 100th time. The 54-year-old remains as motivated as ever to succeed against the men in green, still determined to prove a point over what he will always see as his unfair dismissal from the Ireland job. If he’s wanted to prove a point to the Irish Rugby Football Union, Gatland has done a pretty good job. Stints with Wasps, Waikato, and the Chiefs have followed, but it’s with Wales and the British & Irish Lions where he’s gone to the next level. Gatland still has his critics, but his longevity and success can’t be questioned. Former New Zealand boss Sir Graham Henry (103) is the only other international coach to record a century of matches in charge of one nation.
“I knew 100 was potentially coming up,” Gatland said.
“Last year Graham said to me: ‘How many caps do you have?’ I said: ‘Honestly, I don’t know’. He said he was on 140-something and with Wales, Ireland and the Lions, I was over 100. I wasn’t quite sure, but reaching it with Wales is pretty humbling.”
Gatland signed an initial four-year deal with Wales in 2007. By the time he leaves after next year’s World Cup in Japan, his stay will have ended up nearly three times that length.
“I was sitting there with the contract in front of me and my heart was pounding,” Gatland said, as he looked back to 2007. “I was thinking ‘Am I doing the right thing? I am not sure. Shall I just get up and walk out?’. I have never told anyone this, but my daughter Gabby rang me and said: ‘Dad, don’t do it’. Then she rang me back 20 minutes later and said: ‘If you want to do it, I will support you.’
“That was quite hard, from a family perspective, but I signed the contract and that was the start.”
Gatland’s time in charge of Ireland is now consigned to the history books. More than a decade with Wales and two unbeaten series with the Lions will come to define his career in northern hemisphere rugby. The man himself is clear in his belief he’s made Wales a much better side. It’s hard to argue with that. There have been two Six Nations Grand Slams and a World Cup semi-final. Gatland’s win percentage of 51 — it rises to 69 in the Six Nations — also backs up his claim.
Of the 11 games he’s coached, Wales against Ireland, Gatland has won six and drawn one.
“When I look back on it all, Wales came along and I thought it was a good opportunity to be away for a while then come back to New Zealand and do Super Rugby again,” he said.
“That was my thinking and the initial plan was to go to the 2011 World Cup. The New Zealand Rugby Union had contacted me in 2011 and offered me the Chiefs job. I was pretty close to accepting that, but it was still a strong squad with Wales and we went on to win the Grand Slam in 2012 and then the Championship in 2013.”
There are some who point to Wales’ lack of success against southern hemisphere sides and his one-dimensional ‘Warrenball’ style of play as sticks with which to beat Gatland.
“I don’t think I’m undervalued and I think there is a huge amount of respect for what we have achieved,” Gatland said. “When people look back over the last 10 years, they’ll look back at what has been a golden period of Welsh rugby. We’ve got a generation now who expect Wales to compete against the best teams in the world, but when you change expectations and perceptions, you possibly create a little bit of a rod for your own back. There is no doubt with the Welsh that when there’s agony they want the ecstasy and when you give them the ecstasy, they want the agony again.”
His Wales team must win on Saturday to keep their Six Nations hopes alive. Victory would end the Grand Slam hopes of Joe Schmidt’s men for another year. The bigger picture, though, remains next year’s World Cup. Victory in Japan would only serve to enhance Gatland’s status as one of the world’s best coaches. It would also be a defiant message to the IRFU over what they could have had.
“Some of the Welsh guys from the 1970s won three Grand Slams and that’s as good as anyone in the history of the game,” Gatland said. “My focus now is doing well in Japan in 2019. If our squad and can stay fit, they will be pretty motivated to finish on a high.”