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 third 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 second season at the Sportsground. Click here for The Gatland years (Part 1) and here for the Gatland Years (Part 2).
Daring To Believe
In Gatland’s second season, 1997/98, Connacht’s pre-season camp was held in the Oratory School in Reading. Aside from its sumptuous, tree-lined rugby pitches, the Oratory is noted for its rowing on the nearby Thames and for being one of only three schools in England with ‘real tennis’ courts. Connacht were moving up in the world, and Brian Ashton, then coach of Ireland, attended a couple of their training sessions.
‘The boys trained very hard, and we put a lot of effort into our fitness,’ says Gatland. ‘At the time, we still didn’t have any full-time professionals.’
Garland brought over lock Mark McConnell and flanker Junior Charlie from Taupiri. ‘At that stage, we were allowed to bring in two overseas players, and I thought they’d bring a Kiwi mentality and attitude, that a couple of forwards would be good for us. And they were great.’
McConnell masterminded an exceptional lineout, while for his part Charliebecame a totemic figure with his big carries and big hits.
Despite 29-9 and 23-6 Interprovincial defeats at home to Munster and away to Leinster, in between Connacht beat Ulster 27-12 at the Sportsground. To put this in perspective, it was Connacht’s first win over Ulster since 1983, which had been their sole win over the province since 1964. But they were again edged out of third place in the Interpro table on points difference to Ulster.
‘At that time, we were probably catching sides a little bit cold,’ says Gatland. ‘They weren’t expecting Connacht to be up to much, and yet it was tough coming to the Sportsground with the dog track and howling gales. We kind of made the most of that and tried to make it as difficult as we possibly could for anyone coming there.’
Connacht’s first game in the Challenge Cup was at home to Northampton, who had beaten them 31-11 in the Sportsground 11 months previously. Ian McGeechan left out several of his five-strong Lions’ contingent who had been part of the series-winning tour to South Africa the previous summer and only brought on Nick Beal and Gregor Townsend in the second half. Even so, few held out much hope of Connacht providing Ireland’s first win in Europe that season. But on a glorious, sun-drenched day at the Sportsground in front of a small Tuesday-afternoon crowd, Connacht beat Northampton 43-13.
‘It was a beautiful day and we were just on fire; they just didn’t know how to handle it,’ says Gatland. ‘It was pretty special.’
There had been an IRFU committee meeting scheduled for the afternoon of the Northampton game, so none of the committee members were in attendance, and after the game the call came from Lansdowne Road to the main landline in the Sportsground asking for the result.
‘It was 43-13.’
‘That’s not too bad. Sounds like Connacht put up a good fight?’
‘Eh, actually it was 43-13 to Connacht.’
‘Are you sure it wasn’t the other way around?’
‘No. Connacht won 43-13.’
A controversial defeat to Nice followed but a ground-breaking win away to Bordeaux-Begles – the first victory for an Irish side on French soil – and a home win over Nice to exact revenge put the province in a strong position.
A second win over Bordeaux meant the momentum was firmly with Gatland’s men ahead of the pool decider away to Northampton.
Connacht were not a team of all the talents but made the most of what they had, with some well-honed scoring manoeuvres. Most famously there was the 13-man lineout, whereby the forwards lined up to the front to set up a maul, and the entire back division bar the scrum-half joined in to forge an unstoppable drive.
That one had been introduced in the first season against Australia. ‘We scored off it and they were all bitching and moaning, complaining it was illegal,’ remembers Gatland. ‘But the referee said, “No, no, that’s fine.”
‘I was always looking at the rules and seeing how you could use them to your best advantage and catch teams unaware. At that stage, you could have a 13-man scrum as well if you wanted to. There was no limit to the amount an attacking team could put in the lineout. As a defending team, you couldn’t have more than the opposition.
‘We called it “psycho”, on the basis that you had to be crazy to do it,’ says Gatland.
When he first suggested it at a training session in Athlone, many of the players looked at him as if he were indeed insane, one of them asking, ‘What happens if we lose it?’
Gatland answered, ‘Well, that would be fun, wouldn’t it? That would be even more exciting than if we scored from it.’
But that never happened, and the move was well in credit over Gatland’s two seasons.
Those three successive wins set up a pool decider away to Northampton in their Franklin’s Gardens lair. This time, McGeechan’s Saints were also locked and fully loaded, with their Lions – Dawson, Townsend and Beal – all starting alongside Martin Bayfield, Budge Poutney and Ben Cohen.
Gatland’s ‘To Hell or to Connacht’ phrase had been adopted with chip-on-the-shoulder gusto by the squad and those close to them.
Connacht’s first try by prop John Maher was the poduct of their 13-man lineout. Elwood set up Junior Charlie for the second with a sweet break. After a burst by tight-head prop Mick Finlay, who had a huge game, Murphy worked out a dummy pass with Duignan for Ruane to make ground and put Carolan over.
That gave Connacht a 20-10 lead to defend in a frantic final quarter, which they needed after Townsend had created a try for Jonny Bell.
Gatland recalls, ‘They should have scored a try late in the game but Nicky Barry made an unbelievable tackle, probably one of the best tackles I’ve ever seen. They had a four-man overlap and it probably won the game for us.’
The win earned Connacht an away quarter-final against Agen but the Frensh side’s power game proved too much despite another quality Connacht performance.
Back in the away dressing room afterwards, they linked in a circle for one last time and Belted out ‘Red Is The Rose’. ‘Let them heat it,’ beseeched Elwood, ‘open the door.’
Good times. Good memories.
That was to be Warren Gatland’s last game in charge of Connacht as he was offered the Ireland job in February 1998 and went on to spend nearly three years at the helm of the national side.
‘Front Up Rise Up: The Official Story of Connacht Rugby’ is available in bookstores nationwide.