Gerry Thornley: Confident Gatland comes to Dublin ‘with belief, not hope’

Not shy of stoking a few pre-match embers, the Wales coach has pointedly referenced Ireland’s World Cup quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks


Back when he was cutting his teeth with Galwegians, Connacht and Ireland, while still in his mid-30s, you couldn’t get a peep out of Warren Gatland. He was as quiet as a church mouse.

His time with Irish rugby changed him. First, he trusted his instincts in a 44-22 benchmark win over Scotland and was subsequently the victim of a Very Irish Coup after Ireland finished second in the 2001 Six Nations with four wins out of five, and lost a thriller to New Zealand by 40-26.

Thereafter he resolved to be his own man. This process began with Wasps. After guiding them to three successive titles, a Challenge Heineken and a Champions Cup, he became far more self-confident.

By the time he resurfaced with Wales in advance of the 2008 Six Nations, he had almost become the polar opposite of the publicly reticent figure from his early days in Ireland. The more confident Gatland is not shy of stoking a few pre-match embers and, on the eve of this latest meeting with Ireland, he’s at it again.

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Gatland pens a weekly column during the Six Nations for the Daily Telegraph and he has used this platform to up the ante.

“I can’t remember feeling so pumped going in to a Test match,” he begins. Then adds: “There is no doubt that Ireland are a world-class team, and they are world class when they have got everything on their own terms. We have just got to make sure that we make everything uncomfortable for them.

“We’ve got to be physical and get in their faces and put pressure on individuals who we want to target, not illegally, but put them under some pressure, and we have to be accurate with our set-piece.”

As he did at the Six Nations launch, when outlining how the All Blacks withstood that multi-phase Irish attack inside the last 10 minutes, Gatland again referenced that World Cup quarter-final in the Stade de France.

Gatland is no doubt aware of the wounds that game inflicted on the Irish rugby psyche, albeit Andy Farrell’s team appear to have overcome their hangover far more effectively than a French team and management that simply won’t let go.

But this time he wrote of how quickly the All Blacks sprang out of the blocks, threw everything they had at Ireland to build an early 13-0 lead.

The Welsh head coach also referenced his own side’s game management in Twickenham, especially when England were down to 13 men, and there’s no doubt that, as Farrell has said, Wales could easily be travelling to Dublin with two wins.

“We know we are the underdogs, but from the heart I can tell you that I am travelling to Dublin with belief, not hope,” said Gatland in his column.

Also noting the absence of Hugo Keenan, Gatland wrote: “We can look to put pressure on Ciarán Frawley at full-back.”

On reviewing Ireland’s win over Italy, Gatland actually said: “Ironically, we would rather play against their first team only because they are more familiar and there is more predictability than the second choices.”

“This is a moment for our young team to make another statement,” he added, and concluded: “If we can play without fear, anything is possible.”

Them’s fighting words, though only words.

In his first stint as Welsh coach, they had a 35-1-14 win-draw-loss record in the Six Nations, and a 6-1-4 record against Ireland in 10 Championship meetings and the 2011 World Cup quarter-final.

Perhaps the “Gatland factor” was overplayed in advance of Ireland’s 36-10 win in Cardiff in last year’s opening round, but he has clearly been putting it up to his young side this past fortnight and tried to imbue them with a sense of fearlessness, which could make them dangerous.

Farrell will most likely shrug off Gatland’s comments with an amused smile, given they know each other well from two Lions tours together. The Irish head coach wouldn’t be remotely interested in the idea of either having a column in a newspaper and/or making such pronouncements that, for example, he was going to target a specific opposition player. Nor would any of the other head coaches be inclined to do so now that the fast-quipping Eddie Jones has moved on .

This is Gatland’s 16th Six Nations Championship, including four with Ireland, as well as watching over two more as Lions’ head coach, and he is contracted for another three with Wales. He is the competition’s longest-standing agent provocateur. In a time of such political correctness – or at any rate carefulness – one thing’s for sure: when he moves on it won’t be the same without him.

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