The Gatland grudge: why Irish sacking was the making of the Wales boss

Warren Gatland didn't see the IRFU's decision coming, but he's gone on to carve out a top-level career as a coach.
The Gatland grudge: why Irish sacking was the making of the Wales boss

Warren Gatland gives a speech to his Ireland players. Picture: INPHO/Billy Stickland

IN the aftermath of Warren Gatland’s last run-in with Ireland a fortnight before the 2019 World Cup, an old sore festered into a public spat.


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A final warm-up for Japan having sent Wales off to the Orient with a flea in their ear, the old Galwegians’ hooker made some less than favourable comments about the opposition, to the effect that their game lacked ambition.

Gatland’s remarks provoked a sharp riposte from one of those Munster forwards whom he had capped during his time as Ireland’s head coach. Alan Quinlan didn’t need any prompting that Wales had won a Grand Slam the previous year despite scoring fewer tries than any of the other contenders.

Quinlan dismissed the New Zealander’s criticism of a winning Irish performance as ‘absolute bullshit’ before expanding on his theme. "He’s talking about (lack of) ambition,’’ Quinlan said with as suitable air of incredulity. ‘’Winning a Grand Slam with ten tries and no bonus points from five matches?

"There’s a bitterness there in Warren Gatland with what happened to him a long time ago when he got shafted here.’’ 

He was referring to a landmark rendezvous point which used to stand across Lansdowne Road, a five-star hotel where the hierarchy of the Irish Rugby Football Union passed judgement on Gatland in a way which changed his rugby life, ultimately for the better.

As grudges go, it has produced some spectacular results, like three Grand Slams and a unique drawn Lions’ series in New Zealand. To acclaim his Irish sacking as the making of Gatland would not be an exaggeration.

That, however, cannot under any circumstance soothe the injustice Gatland felt, a blow to his professional pride made all the harder to bear by the fact that he never saw it coming.

Hadn’t his Ireland team just dumped another Grand Slam chariot in the Liffey, ambushing the hitherto unstoppable English at the end of a Six Nations tournament postponed from the previous spring by the UK foot-and-mouth epidemic?

Hadn’t Ireland finished with four wins out of five, runners-up to an England squad which would beat the world two years later? Hadn’t Ireland also routed Wales by 30 points in Cardiff the week before they outsmarted Clive Woodward?

Twenty two years on, it stands out, not merely as the day a distressed Woodward lost the ultimate prize for the third season in a row, but as a stark example of how his opposite number wound up losing a great deal more. While the beaten coach carried on regardless, the victorious one lost his job.

Ireland, resuming with two wins from two and fragile hopes of a Grand Slam of their own, had imploded at Murrayfield before putting Wales to the sword. The victory over England, secured by Keith Wood’s stampeding try from a line-out ploy executed to perfection, exalted Ireland to the role of honourable runners-up, denied the title because of England’s grossly superior points-difference.

When it came to renewing Gatland’s contract, the IRFU allowed the Murrayfield muddle to dominate their thinking as a means of promoting Gatland’s assistant, Eddie O’Sullivan. Even so, the head honcho had sound reasons for thinking that he had repaired enough of the damage to secure his future with the IRFU in the nick of time.

Shortly afterwards, he strode into the meeting expecting to find a new contract awaiting his signature. Instead the two-man Union delegation – chairman Eddie Coleman and chief executive Philip Browne – showed him the door. He was out on his ear.

"Philip came straight out with it,’’ Gatland says in his autobiography. "'We’d like to thank you for all you’ve done for Irish rugby. We’re not going to offer you a new contract.'

"I was completely taken aback. I mumbled something about being disappointed, that I’d set my sights on taking the side through to the World Cup, that I felt we had made some big strides. That was it.’’ 

It seemed Gatland didn’t have an inkling that his job was about to be offered to his assistant. "I walked out of the Berkeley Court just as Eddie O’Sullivan was driving in,’’ the ex-coach said. ‘’Now that’s a funny thing, I said to myself.

"Two weeks later – a fortnight during which I didn’t feel good about Ireland or rugby or myself – I was named Phillips Coach of the Year and caught a train down to Dublin where I received a standing ovation as I accepted the award. How ironic is that?’’ 

Warren Gatland on the training ground in 1998. Picture:  INPHO/Patrick Bolger
Warren Gatland on the training ground in 1998. Picture:  INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Over the ensuing years, Gatland had ample reason for thinking that his abrupt exit for Ireland turned out to be the best thing that had happened to him. It cleared the way for a move from the west of Ireland to a little corner of west London.

Wasps’ training ground at what used to be the North Thames Gas Board sports club, was as unpretentious as the club itself. A tough northerner with a bent nose and a thirst for knowledge which would make him a defence coach par excellence was already there.

Between them Shaun Edwards and the bruised Kiwi would take the unfashionable club of no fixed abode to unprecedented success as champions of England and Europe. That, in turn, led Gatland to Wales and four tours of duty with the Lions.

His first match since being reappointed following Wayne Pivac’s sacking comes with the country’s national sport in a mess on the field and an even bigger one off it which really is saying something. While they prepared at a rural retreat a few miles outside the capital, their employers were under siege as never before.

The sexism scandal over explosive claims from two former female employees, as revealed by a BBC Wales investigative team, degenerated all too rapidly into worst crisis in Welsh Rugby Union history.

Demands for urgent action from major sponsors, all four regional teams, the Welsh Rugby Players’ Association, community clubs and influential individuals forced chief executive Steve Phillips to quit. His resignation last weekend came four days after a flat refusal to consider his position.

Somehow it had to be Ireland first up in Cardiff , the world’s No. 1 team on a run of eight wins out of nine, their only defeat at the start of a series win over the All Blacks in New Zealand last summer.

Gatland would be less than human if at some stage between now and 2.15 on Saturday his mind were not to flit back to the devastating brevity of that last meeting with the IRFU hierarchy. He would be loathe to say so publicly, having gone on record expressing his ‘deepest respect for Irish rugby.’ What cannot be denied is that he will heave might and main to knock the visitors off their lofty perch, an implausible outcome which would be guaranteed to get the championship off to a staggering start. His record against Ireland adds up to the perfect 50-50.

Wales will be marching out under the Gatland banner against the Irish for the 18th time. The previous 17, the majority in the Six Nations, add up to one draw, eight wins and eight losses, none more decisively from a Welsh perspective than the 2011 World Cup quarter-final in Wellington.

Johnny Sexton, Keith Earls, Conor Murray and Cian Healy were there back then when they were simply outclassed. Wales under Gatland never quite reached those heights again but the suspicion is always there that one day they just might.

Ireland, therefore, will be wary, all the more so over the common belief that the credibility gap over Wales has widened to 20 points or so as they moved in opposite directions. If the Irish have their ears to the ground they will have detected a shift in Welsh mood from despair to optimism, most of it generated by Toby Booth’s Ospreys in the Champions’ Cup.

Ireland, of course, have crumbled in Cardiff before, finishing a very poor second as recently as 2019 which happened to be Gatland’s last Six Nations mission.

For all their renewed hope, the Welsh supporter who deals in realism as opposed to flights of fancy will settle for a home performance good enough to push the favourites all the way.

Should they go one better and make a mockery of the world rankings, Gatland will no doubt take himself back briefly to the Berekely Court and thank the IRFU for the gravel in his gut and the spit in his eye…

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