Ireland arrived in Cardiff last night struggling to maintain a dignified silence concerning the extraordinary "my players dislike the Irish more than anybody else" comments made by the Welsh coach Warren Gatland. But back over the water they had left a backlash that the Kiwi was fortunate to be avoiding.
Far from this being a masterful piece of mental warfare before the Championship deciding encounter, the Irish commentators were taking it to be a crass error of judgement on Gatland's behalf that had played directly into Declan Kidney's hands. Nobody pointed the finger more enthusiastically than Shane Byrne, the hooker who just happened to be awarded his first cap by Gatland in 2001.
"Trying to provoke a reaction by saying something like the Welsh have a problem with the Irish is just stupid," said Byrne, who is still very close to the majority of Irish players. "Warren is a New Zealander coaching Wales; you wonder how much he has his finger on the pulse of the nation. If you canvassed people on the streets of Cardiff, you'd be hearing about their dislike for the English, not Ireland. Gatland is a coach who wants to grab the headlines... he is playing some sort of game with Kidney.
"He got the selection wrong against Italy, then there was the infighting with [Gavin] Henson over the decision to kick that penalty and this is Gatland's way of dealing with all of that – introducing his own brand of New Zealand 'wit'. I think it will backfire. The Irish guys will be having a laugh with it, but only in a way that will help focus minds rather than unsettle them. There's no way Kidney will fall into this sort of trap."
That was the general consensus and such was the outcry that Gatland felt obliged to explain himself. However, whether the Irish will accept his clarification remains to be seen. "I meant it as a compliment," said Gatland. "I knew when I said it that it was going to get headlines. It got more of a reaction than I wanted probably... 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."
Even some of Gatland's Irish allies were apparently of the belief that he might have gone too far. "It's typical Warren," said Donal Lenihan, the Irish team manager when Gatland took charge. "I think there are times when he loses the run of himself. I was talking to Lawrence Dallaglio, who was his captain at Wasps, about him just a few weeks ago. Lawrence said there were times before matches when Warren came out with statements and you just said to yourself 'why did you say that' and I think this is one of those occasions... I think it's more a case of him challenging his own players. It's all mind games. I'm sure Warren has a huge amount of respect for the Irish players. And I know the guys in the Irish set-up will have a lot of time for him."
A query was put above that last comment when members of the Irish coaching staff finally reacted to the Gatland grenade. First Paul McNaughton, Ireland's current team manager, said "it was not worthy of a response" before dismissing Gatland's claims that Ireland spent an hour-and-a-half singing in the dressing room after winning at Murrayfield on Saturday. "It was completely wrong and nonsense – there wasn't a note sung in the dressing room if that's what he is talking about," he said. "Most of them can't sing anyway. They were in reflective mood – starting to think about the next game."
And then Les Kiss, the Irish defence coach, introduced his Australian twang into the controversy. "He is going to come out with any statement to try and turn the screws in our heads and make us think about things that we should not think about," said Kiss, adding his belief that Gatland, "is going to come up with more". "Wales will come out with whatever they need to try and deflect from the fact that they haven't been quite where they would like to be." That was clear reference to the defeat in Paris and last weekend's poor display in Rome. Said Kiss: "If they are talking about pressure and how to turn that around, they might be better off concentrating on their own stuff." The game, as they say, is very much on.