Gatland pays a heavy price for missing history lessons

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The Independent Online

Time was, well, last season to be exact, when Warren Gatland could barely put a foot wrong. And then, perhaps, overconfidence creeps in. Gatland had a dig or two at England before Wales beat them, none too convincingly, in Cardiff and launched an even more outrageous attack on Ireland.

"My players dislike the Irish more than anybody else," Gatland said. When the effluent hit the fan, the coach backtracked and said: "I meant it as a compliment. I knew when I said it that it was going to get headlines... I wasn't saying they disliked them as people, they just wanted to beat them so much. It's like when I was with Waikato, we always wanted to beat Auckland more than anybody else."

No disrespect to Gatland, but Waikato is not Wales and Auckland is not Ireland. As anybody born on the right side of the River Severn knows, the Welsh hate nothing more than England.

Brian O'Driscoll, the Ireland captain and the centre of centres, remarked, on the Gatland grenade, "There is no need to make the situation any bigger than it is." And he was right. While the Irish were going for their first Grand Slam since three years after the end of the Second World War, Wales were going, not for another Slam, but to retain the Six Nations' Championship for the first time in 30 years. Instead, as a result of last night's epic climax, the Welsh were also-rans, the Irish on top of Europe. Gatland suffered a fall and the spell was broken; defeats to France, eccentric, erratic France, and Ireland and a shabby win over Italy.

History, as Henry Ford said, is bunk but it's an upper-tier bunk because it always counts. The thing about Gatland, of course, is that, before joining Wasps and Wales, he coached Ireland and quite successfully at that but that didn't stop him losing his job. And that is a part of history that, apparently, he has not forgotten.

In the summer he will be a significant part of the British and Irish Lions' coaching team on the tour to South Africa. That squad will have a strong Irish accent. Not as quiet as Declan Kidney's but stronger than Gatland's.

The strangest aspect of yesterday's showstopper is not that Brian O'Driscoll burrowed over for another crucial try but that the wing Tommy Bowe found the freedom of the Millennium Stadium. Bowe may be from Ulster but he defected to the Ospreys in Swansea, where you would have thought players like Gavin Henson and Shane Williams would know him like an old cousin. Not at all. Bowe scored a try that came like an arrow, O'Driscoll did his mole act and the Irish line-out played their huge part. The force was with Ireland, and about bloody time.

"It would have broken my heart if we'd lost," O'Driscoll said. They didn't and they didn't deserve to and, in any case, it would have been some heart to break. Would this historic victory have been better at Croke Park or Lansdowne Road? Not really. Munster like playing at the magnificent Cardiff Stadium, and Kidney and half his team are from the province. It's almost like home from home.

When Wales won the Grand Slam here in 2005, Gavin Henson kicked the winning penalty against England from about the halfway line and became a national hero. He didn't fancy it, though. The kick, that is, not the heroism. Yesterday he fell short with a long-range effort and then at the death he could have had a slot at another. Instead Stephen Jones, whose goal-kicking had been excellent, had a penalty to deny the Irish the Slam, and he too came up short.

Henson, whose range is longer, should have given it a whack. It looked as if Jones had become the matchwinner when he kicked a late drop goal but his opposite number Ronan O' Gara slotted over the Slammer. At the end, as sick as Jones must have felt, he had time to give O'Gara a little hug. Fair play, and it still counts in what at times can be a brutal encounter.

This result will keep Irish playwrights and romantics in business for years if not decades. Where is James Joyce when you need him? Probably dreaming about a Slam. In Irish eyes, at the moment there is nothing bigger.

Over the past 10 years Ireland have a great record in Cardiff but it is this one that will be the bestseller: 1948 and all that... Gatland has a history lesson to learn.

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