Irish sack coach Gatland six weeks after England victory

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The Independent Online

Six weeks ago, Warren Gatland was just about the most popular man in Irish rugby – a famous Grand Slam-denying victory over England under his hat, an increasingly vibrant group of players under his command and a humdinger of a match with his native New Zealand looming large on the horizon. Yesterday, Gatland was railroaded out of his job as national coach and consigned to the dustbin of history. If rugby is a funny old game, the former All Black hooker from Waikato is not laughing.

Eddie O'Sullivan, assistant coach to Gatland for the past two years, has been promoted to top dog, with Declan Kidney, of Munster, in support. O'Sullivan's contract will run through to the end of the 2004 Six Nations' Championship, thereby taking in the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in 2003. Kidney, meanwhile, will continue working with his provincial charges until Munster conclude their current commitments in the Heineken Cup and Celtic League, before moving into the national set-up on a full-time basis.

The Irish Rugby Football Union issued a statement thanking Gatland for his efforts since 1998, when he was saddled with the task of guiding a one-dimensional side through the 1999 World Cup – a tournament in which they failed to reach the last eight. However, the IRFU chief executive, Philip Browne, left no doubt as to the nature of the coach's departure by saying: "Following on-going and detailed reviews, it was agreed that it is in the best interests of all concerned to end the contract with immediate effect."

Gatland's stock rose last spring, when Ireland recorded a first back-to-back victory over the French since the mid-1970s, and he took the opportunity to press for an extension of his contract. This was rejected by a hierarchy still smarting from World Cup failure and a 50-point defeat by England the previous season. All Gatland managed to negotiate was an early review at the end of the autumn international programme, and that process was completed at an abrupt eight-minute meeting with union officials on Wednesday night.

In effect, Gatland's goose was cooked in Edinburgh in September, when a poorly selected Ireland team found themselves on the wrong end of a severe drubbing from the Scots. Even though the victory over England four weeks later was celebrated in traditional fashion in the bars of Dublin and a pumped-up team gave the All Blacks a hurry-up for the first hour of a quality match at Lansdowne Road, too many senior figures had committed themselves to a change of regime.

"A major factor in the timing of this decision is the importance of having the new coach in place in the lead-up to the forthcoming Six Nations and, ultimately, to maximise preparations for the World Cup," Browne said.

O'Sullivan, well regarded as a clever tactician, now has a clear run into the 2003 tournament, although Ireland have still to complete the formality of qualifying owing to their early exit last time out.

For his part, Gatland restricted himself to a standard farewell statement. ''I want to thank the players and wish them all the best for the future," it ran. "I look forward to fulfilling a new challenge in rugby." Those few words did not tell even half the story.