Irish Examiner Column, 20 March 2009

March 20, 2009

SO THERE we were, hacks feeling less than gruntled, grazing on the thigh-bones of innocent missionaries and wondering what kind of trouble we could stir up ahead of tomorrow’s Wales-Ireland game, or The Greatest Story Ever Told, to contextualise it appropriately.
Suddenly, into our shared holding cell/lavishly appointed penthouse – delete as you see fit – burst one of our number with the astounding news: that one of the coaches had actually Said Something.
Hence the general air of happiness for the last few days, in the aftermath of Wales boss Warren Gatland’s sudden attack of personality.
For the record, Mr G earlier in the week: “Somebody told me, after the Scotland game, the Irish players were singing and celebrating, so they are fairly happy with where they are.
“They are probably happy with winning four out of four and playing for the Triple Crown and Grand Slam. We were completely the other way (after beating Italy). The boys went back to the hotel, did not drink and were thinking about this week.”
O happy day. There are open goals, and then there are goals which aren’t so much open as offering you two for the price of one on admission and a free basket of chips with your second drink.
There’s an implicit suggestion somewhere in Gatland’s comments that perhaps being happy isn’t the correct emotion when you win four from four and play for the Triple Crown and Grand Slam. What would be the appropriate way to feel – a fleeting hint of melancholy?
As for Welsh players thinking about this week . . . cast your minds back to the second week of February, and specifically place to the Queen’s Vault Bar in Cardiff, 24 hours after Wales’ 23-15 victory over England at the Millennium Stadium.
Gavin Henson had to issue an apology subsequently to ‘any member of the public he offended’ after he and five team-mates were cautioned by the Wales management team for their behaviour in the bar.
(Full disclosure: for Wales management team read W. Gatland et al).
Centre Henson issued a personal apology, while forwards Andy Powell, Rhys Thomas and Jonathan Thomas were also rebuked and offered apologies after admitting to ‘varying degrees of regrettable conduct’, while scrum-half Mike Phillips and full-back Lee Byrne were also questioned by management the incident.
Witnesses out in Cardiff described Henson as a ‘disgrace’ and claimed scrum half Phillips even took to the stage to apologise for his teammate’s behaviour.
(Even fuller disclosure: Phillips was the man previously found unconscious outside a nightclub while rehabbing his knee. At least you can’t argue with his credentials in this department.)
Fair enough, let him who is without sin and so on. Gatland is only doing what he thinks is right for his team, turning up the heat a little in the Ireland dressing-room in an effort to distract the men in green.
With all due respect to the Irish players, however, they’re professional sportsmen who are used to a far more overt means of intimidation. The real victims of Gatland’s comments, and the dismissiveness implied in “happy where they are” are the rest of us.
We like to think – this week of all weeks – that Irish people are viewed universally by those beyond the four green fields as likable, bright, good company, impressions which are only strengthened when foreigners arrive here.
For Gatland to criticise us, after years with Connacht and Ireland, hits home because he knows us. He knows whereof he speaks, so he’s not that easily dismissed, and now that the whole country is apparently swirling down the plughole, it’s as if one of our own is kicking us when we’re trying to stay afloat. Or standing on our heads to keep us under the surface – well, you get the message.
You’ll never beat the Irish? What they meant was you’ll never criticise the Irish.

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