There is no disputing that Warren Gatland is one of the best rugby coaches in the world at the moment.
The New Zealand native led Wales to four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams, and to two Rugby World Cup semi-final appearances during his 12-year stint in the country.
It’s that record that has seen him chosen to coach the British & Irish Lions for a third successive tour next year.
However, Gatland’s enviable coaching career did not get off to the smoothest of starts considering his well-documented ousting as Ireland head coach after three years in charge.
Gatland was appointed as Ireland head coach in February 1998 when Brian Ashton resigned in the middle of the Five Nations tournament. Though they finished bottom of the heap that year, the Kiwi soon began to see vast improvements in the team’s performances. However, following a disappointing run at the 1999 World Cup, the pressure was on for Gatland and Ireland to get results.
Over the next two seasons, the men in green recorded back-to-back wins over France, including their first win in Paris since 1972, and finished on level points with England in the 2001 Six Nations, losing out on points difference.
Naturally, given their improvement, Gatland never imagined that their 29-40 loss against the touring All Blacks would be his last game in charge of Ireland.
As he describes in his 2019 autobiography ‘Pride and Passion’, he traveled to Dublin for contract talks in November 2001 fully confident that he would be offered a new deal.
“The meeting was at the Berkeley Court Hotel, close to Lansdowne Road and there were three people present: me, Philip [Browne, CEO of the IRFU], and Eddie Coleman [chairman]. Philip came straight out with it. ‘We’d like to thank you for what you’ve done for Irish rugby but we’re not going to offer you a new contract’, he said.
“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’d made some big strides…. and that was it. No more words came out.
“I rang Trudi and told her they were letting me go. Her response? Something along the lines of ‘What???!!!’ I asked her for Billy Glynn’s phone number. Billy was our solicitor. He was also on the IRFU committee and was gobsmacked when I told him the news. He did not hesitate in agreeing to represent me – against the IRFU in which he was a significant figure! Only in Ireland.
“I walked out of the Berkeley Court just as Eddie O’Sullivan was driving in. ‘Now there’s a funny thing’, I thought to myself.”
When he recovered from the shock of his sacking, Gatland felt at peace with the outcome. He had been at war with the media and had even considered tendering his resignation the previous season due to the strain on him and his family.
“When I walked in the door of our home in Galway a few hours later, I had remarkably recovered enough to gree Trudi with a smile and the words ‘a great weight has been lifted off my shoulders’. She was relieved to see me and realise I was OK about it all.
“Two weeks later – a fortnight during which I really didn’t feel good about Ireland or rugby or myself – I was named Phillips Coach of the Year and caught the train down to Dublin where I received a standing ovation as I accepted the award. How ironic is that?
“By the time I arrived back home, something inside me had changed for the better. In fact, I felt great, as light as air. And since that day, I’ve looked back in my years in Ireland as formative, a period of accelerated experience in which I learned an enormous amount about a huge number of things.
“I don’t have any traumas about it because I think I came out of the right side of the ledger. What happened back then led me to here and now, so from that perspective, I’m grateful.”
Despite the fallout, Gatland maintains that he still has the utmost respect for what Irish rugby has achieved. He is not judging that based on their recent success and titles, but in the fact that the whole island can come together to play the sport despite political and religious differences.
“To this day, I have the deepest respect for Irish rugby. Even if Munster and Leinster had not won half a dozen European titles between them; even if Declan Kidney and Joe Schmidt had not delivered Gram Slams… If none of those things had happened, rugby union in the Emerald Isle would still be a sporting miracle.
“To have an all-Ireland team playing at the very top level of a major sport, despite all the history and politics and tension between the communities in those four great union-playing provinces is an extraordinary thing.
“When I started Galwegians, I already had some understanding of the sensitivities at work in the country because I’d made a study of the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising and associated matters during my time at university. I think it helped me avoid saying daft things or making dumb mistakes.
“Not that there weren’t times when I was just a little irreverent: for instance, I remember sprinkling holy water on boots belonging to David Humphreys, very much a man of the Protestant persuasion who was known in the squad as ‘First Minister’. Did I feel guilty? Not when he kicked five out of five the following day. That was the wicked side of me.”
However, the situation was not always taken lightly and Gatland reveals that in 1998, he and the Irish coaching staff were threatened for a lack of Ulster representation during Ireland’s tour of South Africa that year.
“There was a flipside, however, as I knew there would be: after all, I’d seen the soldiers on the streets when I toured Ireland with the All Blacks. This flip side took the form of a letter addressed to ‘Gatland, Lenihan and Danaher’ after the three of us picked our squad for the South Africa trip in 1998.
“It read as follows: ‘You biased bastards from the south… We understand from our rugby friends that you haven’t picked enough players from the north. Enjoy your trip to South Africa. We know where you live.’
“The purported sender? ‘The Red Hand of Ulster’. We gave it straight to Special Branch. That was the only time I had personal experience of a threat.”
Many coaches would feel hard done by if they suffered the same fate as Gatland as he did with the IRFU but it’s clear that the Kiwi coach is proud of what he achieved and how it influenced his career.