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19 February 2000 - The day Warren Gatland gambled on the future of Irish rugby

Mick Galwey remembers Gatland’s big decision to cap five new players against Scotland.

Peter Stringer was one of five players to make their debut against Scotland.
Peter Stringer was one of five players to make their debut against Scotland.
Image: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

WHEN FANS WENT through the turnstiles at Lansdowne Road for Ireland’s second Six Nations game in 2000, they had no way of knowing that they were about to see the future.

The national team had been dumped out of the World Cup by Argentina the previous year and had opened the first ever Six Nations with an embarassing 50-18 defeat to England at Twickenham.

Ireland coach Warren Gatland knew he needed to change something, and quickly. He had a fortnight to prepare for the Scots, and decided to dispense with the established pecking order.

Mick Galwey told The42 about the intense training session Gatland held to determine the side for the Scotland game. Brian Cody’s inter-squad clashes at Kilkenny are legendary for their intensity, but Gatland’s effort probably surpassed it that day.

“We had a two-week gap between England and Scotland and I remember Warren basically said ‘all bets are off,’” Galwey said.

“Whoever performed in the squad session would be picked. It was a very physical squad session with scrummaging and contact. It was almost like a final trial. Warren wasn’t afraid to make changes. He put the carrot out there for us.”

When the battle was over, a new order was established in Irish rugby. Gatland decided to make eight changes for Scotland, including five new caps.

Even in Gatland’s most bullish moment he couldn’t have thought he was handing caps to four eventual Lions and another guy who would play for his country 98 times.

Shane Horgan, Ronan O’Gara, John Hayes, Simon Easterby and Peter Stringer were brought in – so too was Galwey, who had appeared off the bench in the humiliation against England.

It wasn’t his debut but Galwey remembers being nervous before stepping onto the field with the new blood.

Mick Galwey and Peter Stringer and Ronan O'Gara 4/3/2000 Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

“It was a huge call and I’ll never forget it,” Galwey said.

“It was ‘shit or get off the pot’ time. All our heads were on the line. It was a big gamble but it paid off.”

Gatland’s gutsy selection saw his side record a comprehensive 44-22 win, with Horgan grabbing a try and O’Gara kicking ten points.

A bit of animosity has developed between Irish fans and Gatland in the intervening years due to his success against Ireland as Welsh boss and his time as Lions coach, but Galwey doesn’t underestimate what the New Zealander did for the national team that week in February.

“I think it was a turning point for Irish rugby,” Galwey said.

“He brought in guys who formed the nucleus of the team for the next ten years.”

From that game on, Gatland’s Ireland side started to improve. There were notable disappointments – a home loss to Wales in ’00 and a massive defeat to Scotland in ’01 – but he also led Ireland to an epic win over one of the best teams of all time.

Although they won the World Cup two years later, England came to Dublin in 2001 as an unstoppable freight train who had blown France, Scotland, Italy and Wales away in their first four games, scoring 28 tries in the process.

Source: Ruddy Darter/YouTube

But Galwey remembers Gatland whipping the team into a frenzy before they played Clive Woodward’s side – something he was very adept at doing – and they denied the visitors a Grand Slam after a 20-14 victory.

“He was very good at getting a team united and playing for a cause,” Galwey said.

“Tactically he probably wasn’t the greatest coach but he had some other good qualities and I really admired him.”

As well as being the head coach, Gatland oversaw the Ireland forwards at the time while Eddie O’Sullivan coached the backs. A lot would be made of whether O’Sullivan betrayed his colleague after Gatland’s departure, but Galwey remembers them as a formidable duo.

Eddie O'Sullivan and Warren Gatland 5/2/2000 Gatland and O'Sullivan after Ireland's loss to England in 2000. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“I don’t think they got on too well at the end but they worked well together,” Galwey said.

“I think Eddie was tactically a bit more astute but they were well suited to each other. Warren was good with the forwards and Eddie worked with the backs so they were a good combination who potentially could have been very good.”

The timing of Gatland’s departure was strange, as Ireland had just beaten England and almost secured a historic first win over the All Blacks.

It is interesting to think what a Gatland-O’Sullivan coaching ticket could have done with Ireland as both matured in their roles but Galwey thinks the hiding the team took against Scotland, which cost the team a chance of contesting a Grand Slam decider against England in ’01, contributed to the Kiwi not having his contract renewed.

Source: Locky Lack/YouTube

“I think the IRFU might have made up their mind after the Scotland match,” Galwey said.

“Had we won that it would have been us going for a Grand Slam against England too. He was probably judged after that game maybe.”

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