Tom English: ‘He’s got the devil’s own job.’
IT was the summer of 1999 when Warren Gatland first went up against the Wallabies as an international coach.
He was 35 years old and in charge of Ireland, a position that some described as an opportunity and others called a death sentence.
The only thing memorable about Irish rugby in the 1990s was the slapstick, the unending misery, the heavy losses and the coaches being hired and fired by an IRFU committee drunk on power and not big on responsibility. Into this madhouse stepped Gatland. It is to his eternal credit that he survived the experience. Last week he was named as coach of the British and Irish Lions side that will tour Australia next summer. That got us thinking back 13 years to some late nights in Sydney and Brisbane and Perth, just Gatland and a few reporters in some hotel bars, swapping stories about how utterly shit things had become and how they might be improved on one day.
Deadpan and revelatory, Gatland was brilliant at gallows humour – and he needed to be. He’d been in charge for seven Five Nations games at that point and had lost six of them. He’d added one wooden spoon in his first season in 1998 to the two that went before in 1997 and 1996. The sequence was broken in 1999 but it was hardly a cause for celebration since Ireland’s last match that season was at Murrayfield and ended in a shellacking that was commonplace back in the day. The Scots won 30-13 and everybody shrugged. Same old, same old.
For one so young he had an old head on his shoulders, always capable of seeing the dangers lurking in the shadows in the shape of IRFU men who didn’t fancy his free spirit. He said he refused to play the political game, point-blank objected to kow-towing to the blazers in order to feather his own nest. Over a beer and a chat he’d gun them down. Eventually, they returned fire.
It was a Tuesday evening in the autumn of 2001. Things had taken a turn for the better for Irish rugby by then but these union men, they don’t ever forget. Gatland was called to a meeting in Dublin and was sacked, though the news wouldn’t break for another 24 hours. On the Tuesday night we spoke. “I’m no longer Ireland coach,” he confided. He was in shock but the one thing that shone through was the confidence he had in himself to come back from it. He said he was determined not to be bitter but might find it hard given some of the characters involved in his dismissal. If he held a grudge, he said, then he’d try and channel it in a positive way. It didn’t take him long.
You don’t hear Gatland talking much about his Ireland days anymore. Why would he when he’s got so much other good stuff to chat about. Three Zurich Premierships, one Heineken Cup and one Parker Pen Challenge Cup with Wasps in the years from 2003-2005. The Air New Zealand Cup with Waikato in 2006. The Grand Slams with Wales in 2008 and 2012 and that thrilling march to the semi-finals of the 2011 World Cup. Sam Warburton’s red card and all that.
And now he’s coach of the Lions, the true measure of his ability being the fact that there’s barely been a single grumble about the appointment. It doesn’t matter that there was really nobody else to pick from. Even if a young Carwyn James was knocking about, Gatland’s record was still irresistible.
Which is just as well because he’s got the devil’s own job now. A career high, no doubt. An epic achievement. But a monstrously difficult assignment.
There is a superficial analysis going around the place at the moment relating to the likely challenge of the Wallabies next summer. The theory goes that, since they had an average World Cup and a last few months that featured a loss to Scotland and three narrow wins over Wales, they’re not going to be able to live with the Lions. If you feel such confidence then fire ahead and back the tourists, but I’d go easy on the stake.
The Wallabies are masterful at finding their best stuff when they most need it. They can go from hapless to heroic in the space of a week and they don’t care a damn sometimes how they get there.
Remember the 2001 tour? The first Test was all Lions and the first half of the second Test was all Lions. After a Test and a half the series looked done and dusted. Then Nathan Grey took out Richard Hill with a blatant elbow charge and the Lions slowly unravelled. Grey picked his target well. When he did Hill, he did a proper job. That was the last we saw of the flanker on tour. We think of that summer now and we remember Brian O’Driscoll and Jason Robinson and Martin Johnson and Jonny Wilkinson but the most influential player by a walking mile was Richard Hill, pictured below. He was the colossus, the man who destroyed everything the Wallabies tried to create, who read their minds and messed with them through his power and his brilliance.
When Gatland made reference to Wallaby tricks last week he wasn’t just talking about the chicanery of the Australian Rugby Union and some of the strokes they try to pull to unsettle the Lions, he was also summoning up the memory of Grey on Hill.
This tour will be murderously difficult. No doubt about it.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the Lions have to do battle with their own as well as with the Australians. I sat with Donal Lenihan, Lions manager in 2001, and for hours he bemoaned the fact that the structure of the domestic season mitigates against the Lions players being at their best when they tour. They’re jaded. Many play through injuries. Most are hanging together by a thread in the final week. Lenihan called on the home unions to get together and restructure the season in a Lions year but he may as well have been talking to the wall. If anything it has got worse.
This season the Heineken Cup final is on one Saturday, the finals of the RaboDirect Pro12 and the Aviva Premiership take place the following Saturday, the Lions meet up on the Sunday and then play their first match six days later – in Hong Kong, a corporate gig set up by HSBC, sponsors of the Lions. The tour proper starts a week later.
Say Leinster repeat their heroics this time around – and they are favourites to win both the Pro12 and the Heineken Cup. That will mean that potentially critical Lions such as Rob Kearney, Brian O’Driscoll, Jonathan Sexton, Sean O’Brien (if fit) and Jamie Heaslip will play a gruelling season culminating in two massive finals on back-to-back weekends – just like last season – followed by a Lions tour and no rest to speak of.
This is self-defeating madness. Everybody in the game loves the Lions but the ones in power in this part of the world don’t seem to love them enough to budge an inch to help them.
So it falls to Gatland to make it happen. A while back he fell off a ladder. Last week he climbed a mountain. With many more mountains left to climb.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 24 mph
Wind direction: North
Temperature: 5 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 16 mph
Wind direction: North east