'Mischief personified' and 'loyal to the end' – the making of Lions coach Gatland
|Chiefs v British and Irish Lions|
|Venue: FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton Date: Tuesday, 20 June Kick-off: 08:35 BST|
|Coverage: Live text commentary on the BBC Sport website and app|
Two hours drive south of Auckland, on the outskirts of Hamilton in North Waikato, sits Hamilton Boys’ High School, one of the largest secondary schools in New Zealand.
It was once home to Black Caps cricketers Scott Styris and BJ Watling, current All Black Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Lions and Ireland back Jared Payne.
Also among the old boys is the man currently trying to mastermind the downfall of the New Zealand team in the forthcoming Test series against the Lions – Warren Gatland himself.
The school motto – “Sapiens fortunam fingit sibi” (“a wise man carves his own fortune”) – could easily apply to the much-travelled Gatland, who has coached in England, Ireland and Wales, in addition to his native New Zealand.
This week, the British and Irish Lions head coach goes home to Hamilton as his side play the Chiefs – their last match before the opening Test against the formidable All Blacks on Saturday in Auckland.
Gatland, now 53, will be returning to the place where it all began in the late 1970s.
He joined the school as a 15-year-old, and immediately stood out as not only a talented athlete, but a leader of men.
Glenn Ross – who has also coached far and wide, from Waikato, to Connacht, Sale and Northampton – was the master in charge of rugby when Gatland arrived.
“Warren arrived in the fifth form and was known as a talented ball player,” Ross told BBC Sport.
“I very quickly realised the boy had a brain ahead of his time, and he became an outstanding captain for our first XV.
“He didn’t say a lot that didn’t need to be said. He was very astute, chose his words wisely, very popular with his boys, but tactically very aware.”
Gatland, who was also a talented cricketer, combined a job as a PE teacher with playing for Waikato after he left school, but according to Ross he was always destined to go into coaching.
“He understood the game, and he had coach written all over him from the days he was captain of the school team,” added Ross, who went on to coach Gatland at provincial level.
“He was an outstanding player. He was a very accurate player, very skilful.”
Gatland made 140 appearances for Waikato between 1986 and 1994 and Ross was involved in his transition from number eight to hooker.
But Gatland can consider himself unfortunate to have found his path to the All Blacks blocked by the legendary Sean Fitzpatrick, who made 92 appearances for New Zealand between 1987 and 1997.
It was an era when players only came off the bench if there was an injury, and although Gatland went on four overseas tours with the All Blacks he had to be content with 17 non-international appearances.
Steve Gordon first met Gatland as a teenager when they both played together for the Hamilton Old Boys side and they have been friends ever since.
Gordon – twice an All Blacks lock forward – reckons that Gatland “helped him immensely” with his own game, but that off the field he was “just one of the boys”.
“So many stories start ‘remember that time with Gatty’ and guys start laughing,” remembers Gordon.
“He was mischief personified – a great cards player. He loved playing ‘slave of the day’ – you play cards and if you lost, you had to be someone’s slave for the day. I was his slave many times, he was good at cards.
“He would make me call him ‘master’, you might be trying to impress some people and he would call you over and make you call him ‘master’.”
Gatland’s role as the head coach of the Lions brings with it huge media scrutiny – especially in New Zealand. Has it changed him as a person? Is he a different character from the card player with a glint in his eye of 30 years ago?
“He has been kicked around a little by the press, so he is a lot more guarded, and that comes with the territory of being in that environment,” explains Gordon.
“But when he is in a social setting with people that he trusts, we get the real Gatty.”
Loyalty matters most to Gatland
Gatland began coaching in the late 1980s with Taupiri, a small township of about 450 people of the eastern bank of the Waikato river.
By 1998, he was in charge at Connacht in Ireland and approached to take over as coach of the national team. He took up the role and lined up Ross to replace him in Galway. It was a sign of his loyalty. It is a trait of Gatland, and the people of Waikato in general.
“After Warren went to Ireland, I got a call from him when things weren’t going very well for me where I was,” added Ross.
“He’s a very loyal guy, I’m pretty sure that’s part of it. That’s the thing with Gatty – and all his players will appreciate it – the absolute loyalty.
“If you commit to him fully, he will return that.”
‘Warren is just like another old boy when he calls in’
The Gatland family legacy lives on at Hamilton Boys’ High School. On the walk from reception to the main hall are newspaper clippings of the school’s greatest sporting moments. One of them is about Gatland’s son, Bryn, who dropped a last-minute goal to win the schools Grand Final in 2013.
“If you know Warren you know he is not a pushy kind of dad,” added Nigel Hotham, the school’s head coach and Bryn’s rugby coach at first XV level.
“He never really questioned me, he would always wait for me to ask something and then would have a couple of sharp things to say. I always appreciated his time, I never saw it as a threat; he’s not that kind of person.
“What’s important about Warren is he only says the important things. You won’t get mixed messages; he goes straight for the jugular. I was always much more careful of [Gatland’s wife] Trudi than Warren.”
Susan Hassall taught Gatland as a pupil, and has been the headmaster of the school for 17 years.
“Warren is very good at calling in when he comes back. He is just another old boy. He doesn’t profess to be a Lions coach; there is a humility about him which is typical of New Zealanders, and something we have to cherish. He has never changed.”
In 2011, Gatland was inducted into the school hall of fame, a prestigious honour.
“It is for old boys who have done something very special for the school and the wider community, so we were very proud to have him back to the school to receive his award,” added Hassall.
“He was gracious and he spoke about how hard you have to work to realise your goal and your vision for yourself, and that’s a wonderful message.
“So, for the boys to see someone who has achieved on the international stage – doing something that he wants to do – that is an example of what is possible.”
‘If anyone can cope, Warren can’
Gatland’s return to New Zealand this time around hasn’t been without challenges.
The Lions have been beaten twice already, with the Kiwi media putting the heat on Gatland and his side going into the Test series.
The coach has also had to face accusations of devaluing the Lions shirt by calling up a handful of players deemed undeserving of wearing the prestigious jersey.
Visibly rattled earlier in the tour, Gatland has fought back. After the Lions crushed the Maori in Rotorua on Saturday, he fired a few shots and turned the tables on his All Blacks counterpart Steve Hansen, saying he will be “a little bit worried” by the threat posed by the Lions.
And those that know him best are in agreement that the greater the challenge for Gatland, the greater the motivation.
“It would please him to think the opposition has got him rattled; he will enjoy that,” said Ross.
Hotham puts it this way: “Any coach of the Lions is on a hiding to nothing in New Zealand, but if anyone can cope with that, Warren can.”
Gordon reckons the Lions tour of New Zealand is the “pinnacle of rugby”, adding: “He’s got to be enjoying it.
“He’s really, really calculating and loyal to the end. If that annoys some people, so be it. But he is in charge and has been charged with trying to win a Test series. That’s his number one priority. What other people are saying won’t worry him.”
Gatland may be public enemy number one to the New Zealand public while he plots the downfall of the All Blacks, but there is one town in his homeland where he will always be warmly cherished.