RugbyTipping Point

Forget the acrimony, Irish rugby owes Warren Gatland a belated ‘thanks’

Before the fallout over dropping O’Driscoll and not picking Sexton, Ireland’s golden period started with the Kiwi coach

Warren Gatland was drinking coffee with friends in a Westport hotel, surfacing for air after a wedding the day before, when he took a call from Pa Whelan, the Ireland manager. Ten days after Ireland had lost their opening match of the 1998 Five Nations, and just a year into a six-year contract, Brian Ashton had resigned as Ireland coach. In a family court, the parties would have cited irreconcilable differences.

In Irish rugby around that time, turmoil was a rolling state of affairs. Ashton’s predecessor in the job, Murray Kidd, walked the plank in January 1997, a few days after Ireland had been beaten by Italy in Lansdowne Road, the second of three defeats Ireland would suffer at Italy’s hands in the late 90s. Murray had lasted just nine matches and less than 15 months.

All of this was on-brand. Statistically, the 1990s was the worst decade in the history of Irish rugby. From 80 Test matches Ireland had won 24, 14 of them against nations outside the game’s elite. Ashton was the sixth Irish coach to either resign or be sacked since the beginning of the decade, a dizzying carousel of blame and blood-letting.

When Whelan reached out to Gatland, Ireland needed a solution that was quick and plausible. Gatland was just 34 years of age, impossibly young for a coach at that level, but Connacht had been an oasis of good cheer in Irish rugby in the mid-90s, and they had flourished under Gatland’s leadership.


It was pitched to Gatland as a win-win situation. Initially, this would be a short-term arrangement, until the end of the Five Nations, and if it didn’t work out, the Connacht job would still be there. And yet, did he need to take the risk? Was it too soon in his career? What about all the other coaches who had been chewed up and spat out? What if Irish rugby was just a sow’s ear and nothing else?

Ireland were in a hole and Gatland took a chance. We must have been grateful.

It is easy to forget. Feelings land and take flight again. Under Gatland, Connacht were the first Irish province to launch a trail-blazing campaign in Europe. It was in the Challenge Cup rather than in the Heineken Cup, but that was immaterial to the joy of it and the radiant energy.

John Muldoon, one of Connacht’s greatest ever players, mitched off school to watch Connacht beat Northampton in a mid-week game in September 1997. It was the first time he had set foot in the Sportsground and he was intoxicated by the experience.

Later that season, Connacht became the first Irish province to win a competitive match in France. They won the return match against Northampton too with qualification from the pool on the line. That season, Northampton had four players who had triumphed with the Lions in South Africa the previous summer, and were coached by Ian McGeechan, who had led that Lions tour.

As Ireland coach, Gatland stopped the bleeding. During his four years in charge, Ireland lacked consistency, and there was a boom or bust quality to performances, but the team was on the floor when he took over, and he stood them up. Ireland beat France in Paris for the first time in 27 years, and in Dublin for the first time in 17 years; they beat Scotland for the first time in 12 years, anywhere. They beat Wales by 30 points, a record. Their self-esteem was restored.

He blooded a whole generation of young players, and fired them in, come what may. From Brian O’Driscoll to Ronan O’Gara, Shane Horgan to Peter Stringer to Simon Easterby, and a host of others. Under his watch Ireland finished last, fourth, third and second in the championship, in ascending order. By the time he was sacked at the end of 2001 his win rate was just less than 50 per cent, which made him the most successful Irish coach since Ronnie Dawson in the early 1970s. Everything has a context: Ireland were in the gutter.

But Gatland was poor at playing politics with the blazers in Lansdowne Road, and he was blind to some of his own faults. Ultimately, those failings cost him his job. “Gatland’s reluctance to engage with his employers, to bring in specialist help where clearly it was needed, and to get Ireland beyond the point where there was a calamitous result around the corner went unchecked,” wrote Brendan Fanning in From There to Here.

“This overtook the good he had done. He had put himself wholeheartedly into bonding a disorganised, demoralised group and given some continuity to their careers. He coaxed more of them home from abroad, and what they found on their return under Gatland was a great improvement on what they had left.”

It is a shame that relations soured over the years. Gatland could be prickly in press conferences and he made provocative remarks from time to time in his first stint as Wales coach, some of which he retracted later.

As head coach of the Lions there was no shortage of Irish players in Gatland’s touring parties, but he enraged Irish supporters by dropping Brian O’Driscoll for the final Test in 2013, and by not picking Johnny Sexton for the last tour. Were those decisions justified? The first one far more than the second.

What is forgotten, though, is that he kept faith with O’Driscoll for the 2013 tour after another injury-interrupted season. At 34 years of age, he was oldest player in that touring party; the only other player older than 30 was Paul O’Connell.

The reaction here to O’Driscoll’s omission was hysterical. “There was an extraordinary level of hostility, way beyond anything I’d ever encountered,” wrote Gatland in his autobiography. “It was wild and vicious. There was no escaping the anger, the insults, the torrents of accusations about being anti-Irish. I couldn’t believe what I was reading and hearing.”

So, we forget. The most glorious period in the history of the Ireland team started with Gatland. Somebody needed to do what he did first, before anything else could be done. His appointment, and his impact, were the turning point.

After an acrimonious divorce there can be no ‘Happy Anniversaries’, but 25 years after he answered the phone to Pa Whelan, we should say thanks. Belated thanks.