Warren Gatland's autobiography has been shortlisted for Rugby Book of the Year. We digest the compelling story of the Kiwi who's done so much for British and Irish rugby
The ways and wisdom of Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland’s Chiefs are going through a sticky patch, with a first win in Super Rugby Aotearoa proving elusive. So the 56-year-old Kiwi could do with some good news right now.
It comes in the shape of his nomination at the Telegraph Sports Book Awards, the results of which will be announced digitally on Wednesday (15 July). Gatland’s autobiography, Pride and Passion, appears on the rugby shortlist. If he ends up topping the powerful six-strong field, he would be the first New Zealander to win the award since John Daniell ten years ago.
You can read a full summary of the six Rugby Book of the Year contenders here.
Gatland’s story, told in collaboration with esteemed ghostwriter Chris Hewett, is a compelling one. He first played rugby, barefooted, aged five at the Eastern Suburbs club in Hamilton. Dad Dave was a car salesman and a handy back-row; mum Kay was a hairdresser and accomplished swimmer.
Growing up, Gatland’s heroes were the glory boys in the back-line: wings Bryan Williams and Grant Batty, and later other backs like Bernie Fraser and Bruce Robertson. He played No 8 and in high school captained Hamilton Boys’ first XV for two years. When he was selected for a Northern Region XV, the player he beat to a place was none other than Michael Jones.
It was George Simpkin, who sadly departed this world in May, who suggested Gatland switch to hooker. Within a year Gatland was playing for Waikato and in the early Nineties the Mooloo men won their first NPC title, beat the British & Irish Lions and ended Auckland’s Ranfurly domination with an epic 17-6 away victory; the reception the side received from 15,000 locals back at Rugby Park was Gatland’s most rewarding moment as a player.
Gatland toured Australia and Europe with the All Blacks but famously never earned a Test cap. “How many Tests did I spend manacled to the bench, waiting for Fitzy (Sean Fitzpatrick) to break down and walk off the field in an act of front-row solidarity? There were quite a few of them, for sure,” he writes.
It’s a frustration that fellow hooker Eddie Jones, also shortlisted for the book award, can relate to. Jones missed out on Test rugby because he was deemed too small. Gatland got closer but was ultimately thwarted by a late decision to take Graham Dowd, a prop/hooker, to the 1991 World Cup at his expense.
Like Jones, Gatland set about forging a rugby coaching career that stands comparison with any in history. The bare bones of it are three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-finals with Wales, a series win and draw as Lions head coach, European domination with Wasps, and a unique domestic double – as a player (1992) and head coach (2006) – with Waikato.
A teacher by profession, Gatland’s first foray into coaching was at club side Taupiri. In 1989 he took up a player-coach role at Galwegians in Ireland. For his first fixture, Sligo away, they set off with only 12 players but he laid down the law and sparked an 11-match winning run.
He was to stay four years, parting only because after eight consecutive winters, playing rugby in both hemispheres, he needed to remind himself what a summer was like.
In 1996, rugby was taking baby steps into professionalism. Gatland, teaching in New Zealand, received a call out of the blue to coach Connacht. Off he went – and he never looked back. From there it was the Ireland job at the age of 34, a position he was disgracefully relieved of despite bringing stability and progression after years of mediocrity by the national team.
Two weeks after the IRFU decided not to renew his contract, Gatland was named Coach of the Year and received a standing ovation at a big do in Dublin.
At Wasps, Gatland deployed a blitz defence long before it was in fashion. He recruited shrewdly – Craig White, the strength and conditioning expert, a noteworthy example – and recognised how to bring fitness and performance to a peak for the end-of-season play-offs.
When Wasps missed the deadline to register their Heineken Cup squad, he stayed calm. The club faxed tournament headquarters to check their non-existent communication had been received. “We haven’t received a response from you,” Wasps pointed out. They were allowed to ‘resubmit’ the squad and went on to win that season’s competition.
Gatland turned down the England job in 2006 and later would have finished with Wales after RWC 2011 – to become Chiefs coach in Super Rugby – had New Zealand Rugby upped an offer by just five grand.
They wouldn’t budge so Gatland resumed his well-documented career in Europe, adding Welsh Grand Slams in 2012 and 2019 and taking on the job of Lions head coach for two glorious and stress-filled unbeaten series in Australasia.
One of his red-letter days was the quarter-final at the 2011 World Cup. To negate Brian O’Driscoll’s spot-blitz, Wales played Rhys Priestland flat to the line at ten with the centres staying deep.
They put two men back, one in each channel, to stop Ronan O’Gara kicking for the corners. And they switched the wings round because they guessed Ireland would have prepared a kicking game for the 5ft 7in Shane Williams. Gatland regards Williams, Wales’ record try-scorer, as the best player he coached during his 12 years in the Principality.
The importance of family to Gatland comes across strongly in the book; he and wife Trudi, loving parents to Gabby and Bryn, lost their first child, Shauna, after she died at the age of four months in 1992. She had spina bifida.
When, during the 2017 Lions tour, the NZ Herald took a cheap shot at him and Bryn, a pro player now with the Highlanders, Gatland was disgusted. His disdain for crass journalism surfaces several times, albeit with slightly less venom than seen in Eddie Jones’s book.
Gatland says: “So often, the reporting in Britain and Ireland has focused on the big-name players left out of a team rather than on the fresh talent drafted into it. In Wales… at times I felt it was easier to add new faces to the existing group rather than force someone to make way for them – to pick a squad of 36 or 37 rather than 31 or 32.”
He doesn’t sit on the fence on political issues, such as the health of the Welsh regions or players going to France. And he slams the Lions’ preparation time in 2017 as “mind-blowingly inadequate”, arguing that a player might even have a legal case for damages if they get injured whilst in a jetlagged and poorly rested state.
At least South Africa, where Gatland will head with the British & Irish Lions next year, has a similar time zone to Britain and Ireland. That fascinating next chapter awaits.
Warren Gatland: Pride and Passion is published by Headline, RRP £20.
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