21 years on from his appointment as Connacht Rugby Head Coach, Warren Gatland is currently on his second tour leading the British and Irish Lions.

Gatland spent two very successful years at the Sportsground at the dawn of the professional era with Connacht CEO Willie Ruane, Academy Manager Nigel Carolan and Domestic Rugby Manager Eric Elwood among the squad at the time.

In the first of a three-part series looking back on Gatland’s time at the province, this abridged extract from ‘Front Up Rise Up: The Official Story of Connacht Rugby’, sees author Gerry Thornley look back on the New Zealander’s appointment at the province.

 

Thursday, August 29, 1996

Billy Glynn picked up his phone at about 5.30pm in Galway and rang Warren Gatland at his home in Hamilton, New Zealand, where it was about 4.30am.

‘Hello, Warren, it’s Billy Glynn here.’

Gatland and Glynn had come to know each other well during Gatland’s four years as player-coach at Glynn’s club, Galwegians, from 1989 to ’93. Gatland immediately presumed it must be bad news, perhaps concerning one of his friends from that time in Galway.

After exchanging pleasantries, Glynn cut to the chase.

‘Our coach at Connacht has resigned. I’m just ringing you to see if you’d be interested in coaching us?’

Gatland thought about it for a few seconds. ‘Yeah, I would be interested,’ he said. ‘When do you need to know?’

‘Yesterday,’ said Glynn. ‘The squad are travelling to Sweden for pre-season tomorrow.’

‘Damn. OK, I have to speak to Trudi and the school principal,’ said Gatland, in reference to his PE teaching job at St Paul’s Collegiate School in Hamilton. ‘Ring me back tonight my time.’

He told his wife, Trudi, about the phone call from Glynn. She said, ‘Just go. You might never get an opportunity like this again.’

Gatland then spoke to his school principal, Steve Cole, son-in-law of the former All Black John Graham.

He told Cole, ‘I’ve got the chance to do some coaching in Ireland for 12 weeks.’

‘Go for it,’ said Cole.

Gatland flew from Auckland the next day, arriving in Stockholm on the Monday morning to meet the players, who were based not far from the Swedish capital.

Gatland, then 32, was coaching a club side, Taupiri, and had been assistant coach of Thames Valley for a couple of years. ‘I’d already been player-coaching at that stage,’ he recalls. ‘I had retired from playing two years before. I just thought it was a great opportunity. There were just three Interpros and the European Challenge Cup left, so it was only for three months. And I’d never been to Sweden!’

After phoning Gatland, that evening Glynn drove to the Skylon Hotel in Dublin, where the Connacht squad had assembled before their flight to Stockholm the next morning. Glynn informed the players that he was in negotiations with a new coach and there was a reasonable chance he would accept the position.

‘All I can say is you will be thrilled when you hear his name,’ recalls Glynn. ‘But I won’t announce it until I get final confirmation from him, and I’ll tell you at 10am in Dublin airport tomorrow. Some of you know him very well.’ He left it at that, and the next morning rang Gatland again in New Zealand.

‘Yes, I’ll come,’ said Gatland.

‘Ok, you better pack your bags and get to Stockholm.’

Seven years previously, Gatland had been one of the All Blacks hookers in their squad which toured Wales and Ireland in 1989, and played one of his 17 uncapped representative matches for New Zealand in their 40-6 win over Connacht at the Sportsground that November. It had been his misfortune to understudy the indestructible Sean Fitzpatrick in the days before tactical replacements, and thus he never won a test cap for the All Blacks.

What happened next would have repercussions to this day and beyond, for the events that followed changed Gatland’s life and perhaps rugby in Galwegians, Connacht, Ireland, Wasps and Wales, where he would go on to coach.

 

Read more about Warren Gatland’s time at Connacht Rugby next week in the second of our three-part series.

‘Front Up Rise Up: The Official Story of Connacht Rugby’ is available in bookstores nationwide.

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