Irish rugby the loser for treatment of Warren Gatland
Lions and Wales coach has gone on to prove himself as one of the very best in the game
Warren Gatland: some of the stuff thrown at him in Irish rugby circles over the years only proves how much more sinned against than sinner he has been. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters
Warren Gatland’s expression is doleful at the best of times. But he must be particularly woebegone at the prospect of the run-in to this Saturday’s Six Nations clash in Dublin.
Wales’ coach is faced once more with reprising his cartoon role as Irish rugby’s bogeyman. Maybe there was once a few laughs in playing with the part. But any fun has surely long since vanished. Instead Gatland is entitled to feel he has been royally blackguarded over the years.
Phrases such as ‘uneasy’ and ‘fractious’ are usually employed to describe his relationship with this country. They’re skulking shorthand for a supposed anti-Irish grudge, a risible accusation that says much more about Irish rugby than it does about its former national coach.
This ludicrous characterisation burbled for years until famously bursting through and cementing around Gatland’s decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll for the final Lions Test in the 2013 tour of Australia.
The temerity of dropping the blessed BOD provoked one of those periodic national meltdowns when outsiders apparently gang up on poor little old blameless Cathleen Ní Houlihan. This episode in particular though is still embarrassing enough to make one’s sphincter twitch.
Never mind that O’Driscoll’s form had been ordinary or that he wasn’t the player of 2009 vintage anymore – dropping Irish rugby’s sweetheart was unthinkable.
The great and the good of the game here squealed so loud it felt like O’Driscoll had been dropped off a cliff rather than a team. The idea it might be a straightforward decision in terms of form or tactics was petulantly dismissed as naive. No, there had to be a more perfidious reason.
And the none too subtle subtext was that Gatland had it in for Ireland, annoyed at being shafted by the IRFU a decade previously and picking his own Welsh players in a blatant display of favouritism. It felt way over the top at the time and examining some of the commentary now is cringe-inducing.
Irish people’s desire for outside affirmation, and their knee-jerk defensiveness when anything but lavish flattery isn’t forthcoming, is an interesting theoretical point to ponder if you’re not in the firing line.
No such detachment was available to Gatland when he did his job of picking a team he felt had the best chance of winning a Test match. Instead he put himself firmly at the heart of a vitriolic Irish bullseye.
It was ultimately his good fortune that the judgement of every coach in every sport is decided by results. There’s no definitive right or wrong, only the result. And Gatland’s professional and unsentimental judgement on O’Driscoll was vindicated when the Lions won that final Test in style.
Yet even that definitive verdict has only ever appeared to be grudgingly acknowledged in places here.
What the sorry episode really revealed is the parochial reality behind the thin Lions facade of home-country unity, perhaps an element too in Sean O’Brien’s spectacular display of after-timing on the back of the Lions’ series draw in New Zealand last year.
That added another layer to a Gatland cartoon so grotesquely skewed it camouflages how if anyone is entitled to be sore in this relationship it is him, although to his credit he has mostly exhibited considerable restraint and good grace in response.
He has always acknowledged Galwegians for kick-starting his coaching career, and Connacht, and yes Ireland for appointing him national coach 20 years ago at a time when Irish rugby was a much different beast to now.
In helping to begin the game’s professional transformation here he had to cope with the sometimes farcical reality of the IRFU’s rampant blazer culture and by any measure he’s entitled to be bitter at the manner of his departure.
Having steered the national team past the World Cup disaster of Lens, through to a first victory in Paris in 28 years, and getting within an ace of winning the Six Nations, Gatland’s reward was a perfunctory meeting which ended with the sack.
It’s as trite to portray his successor, Eddie O’Sullivan, as a cuckoo in the coaching nest as it is to portray Gatland as some ingénue adrift in an IRFU snake-pit. But it still reeked of a shabby exercise in backroom political manoeuvring with a convenient outsider for a fall-guy.
And the galling suspicion remains that the ultimate loser was Irish rugby.
It was Gatland who originally nurtured the ‘Golden Generation’ of players. Yet while their former coach proceeded to take Wasps to the summit of European rugby, before becoming Welsh boss in 2007, a sense that that golden generation underachieved became harder and harder to avoid.
It got harder still when Gatland’s first season with Wales resulted in a Grand Slam. He won the Slam again in 2012 and has steered Wales to the Six Nations three times in all while unluckily losing a World Cup semi-final in 2011.
Welsh rugby might have a reputation for flakiness sometimes but even it hasn’t been wacky enough to pull the plug on a coach who has delivered a decade of overachievement. It’s hard then not to ponder what he might have conjured out of what many regarded as a superior squad of players.
Except of course it’s a futile ‘what if’ exercise since Irish rugby’s brass conspired to conveniently dismiss someone destined to become one of the most successful coaches in the history of the game.
It’s in that ludicrous context that Gatland can be forgiven for tossing an odd mischievous barb or two in Ireland’s direction over the years. He would certainly be less than human not to relish getting one over the Irish team this weekend on the occasion of his 100th Test match.
But the idea a couple of verbal digs justify some of the stuff thrown at him over the years only proves how much more sinned against than sinner he has been.