Gatland spent two very successful years at the Sportsground at the dawn of the professional era having previously coached Galwegians for five seasons.
In the second of a three-part series looking back on Gatland’s time in Connacht, 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 Galwegians and his first season at the Sportsground. Click here for The Gatland years (Part 1).
'The thing I liked about the Connacht boys was that everybody knew we were up against it , but, man, when they put that jersey on they gave everything for it.'
Warren Gatland had been one of the All Blacks hookers in their squad which toured Wales and Ireland in 1989. He 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.
Mickey Heaslip, and a few other Galwegians stalwarts, had been chatting in the clubhouse bar one day with the club treasurer, Pat Holland, after a home defeat to Longford. Galwegians were at a low ebb, so bad that Holland said to Heaslip, ‘We have to do something about this.’
Holland, an accountant, had recently returned from working in New Zealand and suggested, ‘We need a new coach. Why don’t we try to get one of the All Blacks to stay back as our player-coach?’ They concluded that a prop who could combine the roles of player and coach would be the best fit.
Loosehead prop Steve McDowell was offered the role but declined and instead suggested Gatland.
The next day Heaslip and Galwegian's captain Enda Guerin met Gatland in the All Blacks’ team hotel. They confirmed they were looking for a prop to become their player-coach and asked him if he could play prop. ‘I said, “Yeah, I can do that”, although I’d never played prop in my life,’ Gatland recalls. At the age of 26, it was Gatland’s first player-coach role.
The appointment proved a masterstroke as Gatland revolutionised training with a big emphasis on high-speed skills drills and Galwegians won their first 11 games under his watch.
In 1990-91, Galwegians missed out on qualifying for the second division of the inaugural All-Ireland League in the round-robin play-offs between the four provincial league winners. This happened again in 1991-92, but they won promotion to the AIL a year later. Gatland played and coached for another season, 1992-93, then returned to New Zealand and his career as a PE teacher while also playing one more year for Waikato prior to retiring.
In 1996, he arrived in Stockholm having answered Billy Glynn’s SOS.
When Gatland arrived, Connacht were in their customary place: at the bottom of the Irish Interprovincial heap. Since the advent of the Interprovincial Championship, Connacht had only managed to share the title on three occasions in 1956, ’57 and ’65. In the inaugural season of preofessionalism, 1995-96, they had lost to Ulster (27-9), Leinster (41-9), Munster (46-11) and the Exiles (28-22), before beating the touring Fijians (27-5).
Prior to the European competitions, the Interpros were run off over three weeks in September and October, and Connacht were immediately much more competitive. They lost 45-28 to Munster in Cork, and by 32-27 to Ulster in Ravenhill, before maintaining their biennial habit of scalping Leinster at the Sportsground, 22-13.
‘I knew that Leinster weren’t up for it when I saw Neil Francis go off injured in the first half,’ recalls Gatland of a typically wild, wet day in the west.
‘We were pretty competitive. We changed the way we defended and brought in that aggressive blitz defence. In those day there was no real video analysis. You were watching teams cold, and they weren’t expecting you to do those things.
‘The thing I liked about the Connacht boys was that everybody knew we were up against it , but, man, when they put that jersey on they gave everything for it.
‘We had players coming out of club rugby playing against teams with internationals and that’s when we struggled a little bit.’
In the first Challenge Cup, Connacht began their campaign with a 34-12 win over Petrarca of Italy at the Sportsground, before losing 26-9 away to Welsh side Dunvant the following Wednesday. ‘That night in Dunvant was a terrible night in Wales,’ recalls Gatland. ‘We went there fancying our chances, but everything just stuck for them.’
Three days later, Connacht were beaten 31-11 at home by a Northampton side laden with five prospective Lions for the 1997 tour to South Africa: Tim Rodber, Matt Dawson, Gregor Townsend, Nick Beal and Paul Grayson.
Connacht then lost 44-10 away to Toulon. ‘Toulon were just too big and physical for us,’ said Gatland.
He was a popular coach amongst the players, according to assistant coach Michael Cosgrave. ‘Not even the subs could find a bad word to say about him. He was innovative but also very inclusive, and was open to ideas from myself or the players. He didn’t treat the players like kids.’
A week later they beat Orrell 30-18 at home and thus finished fourth in their pool of six.
‘We came away from the season thinking we’d done all right,’ says Gatland. ‘We’d beaten Leinster and were competitive in Europe, winning two out of five. We didn’t disgrace ourselves and had done pretty well.’
Connacht probably saved their best until last, extending Australia to a 37-20 win at the Sportsground, one of 12 wins out of 12 by the Wallabies on their tour of Italy, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
Gatland slipped into the crowd to watch the Wallabies train at Corinthian Park. ‘A couple of the players recognised me, and I got kicked out of the training session.’
But with that, Connacht’s season was over in mid-November. Gatland hung around until Christmas before returning to New Zealand to play with Waikato and teach. Before he left, he was interviewed by the then IRFU Director of Rugby, Ray Southam, and offered a full-time role as Connacht head coach for the next season.
Read more about Warren Gatland’s time at Connacht Rugby next week in the final instalment of our three-part series.
‘Front Up Rise Up: The Official Story of Connacht Rugby’ is available in bookstores nationwide.