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 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.’

‘Oh!’

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.

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 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.

 

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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