Gatland enjoying piece of Waikato in London

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland hails from the open farmlands of New Zealand's north island, where rugby folk of his generation drank in the dark arts of scrummaging with their mothers' milk, practised their rucking in playschool and fell asleep only after praying to the Good Lord that Colin Meads would not snatch them away in the night.

When he played for Waikato against the British and Irish Lions in 1993, he and his brethren perpetrated one of the greatest slaughters of the innocent ever witnessed in a major tour match. He was a squat, tough, pain-in-the-neck hooker who would rather have died than give some swanky Londoner - Will Carling, for instance - an even break.

And now? Now, Gatland lives and works in London, coaching England's outstanding Premiership club. A culture shock? Not at all. "You know, the strange thing about Wasps," he said this week, "is that they remind me so much of Waikato. There are all these amazing parallels.

"The Waikato I knew didn't have too many big names - no prima donnas, that's for sure - but had reasonably talented players who got on well and played hard off the field as well as on it. We existed on a work ethic developed over the decades; there was something blue-collar about us, a collective spirit that was pure 'us against them'. We talked endlessly about the privilege of pulling on the shirt, and when we took the field, our hearts were on our sleeves. You couldn't quantify what we had, and you couldn't buy it, either.

"I might just as easily be talking about Wasps. People look at Lawrence Dallaglio and Joe Worsley and Rob Howley and say, 'Hey, you've got a squad full of stars'. But that's not the way it operates here. Lawrence and Joe have just signed new contracts with us - Stuart Abbott and Fraser Waters, too - and they did that because they have a feeling for the club that goes way beyond what they think they can get out of it. It matters to them. Before a big game, we often sit down and talk about honour and togetherness and all the rest of the soppy old bullshit I was familiar with back in Hamilton. It still moves me. I never thought I'd love a team in the way I loved Waikato, but Wasps are special."

So special, indeed, that Gatland did not consider for a moment running his unusually impressive CV off the printer and applying for the New Zealand coaching job forfeited by John Mitchell, a fellow Waikato "Mooloo Man" with whom he shared many priceless afternoons at provincial and All Black levels, after the World Cup.

Had Gatland still been coaching Ireland, it might have been a natural progression. But Gatland lost that job in the late autumn of 2001, in circumstances that remain unfathomably mysterious. To this day, he has kept his counsel on the whys and wherefores - confidentiality clauses and all that - but the episode certainly wounded him.

"After four years with Ireland, I was pretty disappointed to leave the way I did," he admitted. "The thing I most wanted was to take that squad of players to the World Cup, and if it had worked out that way, it might have been an obvious time to say goodbye to Europe and head back home. But things turned out differently, and I can't say I've done badly out of it. London has given me a huge amount of experience and confidence, and allowed me the time and space to work things out. I'm completely happy here.

"Actually, I spoke to Mitch just after the World Cup, when he was fighting for his livelihood. Christ, he was having a tough time of it. Having to re-apply for his own job must have been bad enough, but to do it with the New Zealand papers after his blood - it doesn't bear thinking about, does it?

The thing about All Black rugby is the intensity of the interest. It's a well paid job in New Zealand terms, but it doesn't carry the kind of salary you can earn here. And after a while, it must dawn on you that you're in a bigger goldfish bowl and under more pressure than the Prime Minister. It's crazy when you think about it."

Gatland may yet succeed Graham Henry, newly installed as All Black coach, after the 2007 World Cup. His contract with Wasps has two years to run, after which he may well board a homeward flight and slip neatly into a role at the top end of the silver-ferned game. "There has been some interest in my wanderings from the rugby hierarchy in New Zealand, which is good to know," he said. "But I get the feeling that we are on the brink of a golden era at Wasps, so there is plenty to keep me interested."

Not least this afternoon's deeply demanding Heineken Cup pool match against Perpignan, the rugby flag-bearers of Catalonia, at the Stade Aimé Giral - not quite an impregnable fortress, as a vintage Leicester side proved a couple of seasons back, but nobody's idea of a Wendy house.

Victory would guarantee Wasps a place in the last eight of a competition they would dearly love to win; indeed, they could lose narrowly and still make the cut. On the other hand, a heavy defeat of the kind suffered by the likes of Munster and Llanelli on their most recent trips to the Roussillon region would point them towards the exit door and undermine their confidence ahead of the big Premiership match at Bath a week today.

"After we beat Perpignan at home in the first match of the tournament, I publicly stated that we had just played the best side we would meet in the pool stage," Gatland recalled with a faint groan. "We then lost our next home match, to the Celtic Warriors. I looked a bit daft, I guess, but I meant what I said. I felt we played really, really well in that opening fixture, considering we were up against last season's runners-up, a team who knew what it was to travel away from home and win big European games.

"I knew then that the match in Perpignan would be the making or breaking of us, and I will be incredibly disappointed if we lose and fail to get out of our group. If it happens, we could win the Premiership and the Powergen Cup and I would still be reluctant to view our season as a complete success. The Heineken is that vital to us, which is why we need to feel absolutely right about ourselves going into the game. The positive contractual discussions this week have helped in that regard."

Which brings us back to Dallaglio and Worsley, those giant peas in the back-row pod. Gatland was as delighted as anyone to see Dallaglio re-appointed as England's captain - "He's everything people think he is, and more," said the coach - and equally happy to secure Worsley's services for another two years.

A member of England's World Cup-winning squad but trapped in a kind of international half-life because of Dallaglio's complete command of the No 8 position, Worsley might easily have opted to cut his losses and switch clubs as a means of freeing himself from the shadow cast by his celebrated colleague and mentor. The negotiations were delicate.

"We understand Joe's situation, and we've always tried to free him up by taking some of the responsibility off Lawrence and putting it his way," Gatland explained. "I see him as the best defensive loose forward in England and as such, he is an immensely important figure. He recognises Lawrence's influence, but doesn't let it affect him. Yes, there's a shadow there; no, we don't make an issue of it. We try to give Joe his own identity, and I think the success of that is reflected in his decision to stay."

Eleven years ago, when Carling's midweek Lions were being rucked from one end of Hamilton to the other, Gatland did not appear nearly so sensitive a soul. Age has softened him, and broadened his horizons. The All Blacks, renowned these days less for their unbeatability than their bovine inability to accept that other nations can play this game, could do worse than book him a one-way ticket, with the word "home" printed all over it.