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The making of Wales coach Warren Gatland

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Tom Fordyce | 10:40 UK time, Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Hamilton, North Island

It is a dank, stormy morning in a quiet part of one of New Zealand's quieter cities. Muddy puddles ripple on the playing-fields all around. A solitary, disconsolate figure trudges across the playground, sent out on litter duty while his class-mates eat their lunch.

If it looks and feels about as far from the glamour and excitement of a World Cup quarter-final as one could possibly get, there is a sporting logic to my visit.

This is Hamilton Boys' High, the school where Wales coach Warren Gatland was first taught rugby as a young boy and then excelled as a teenager. Five minutes drive away is the Waikato ground where he became a front-row folk hero and later began a coaching career that would take him to the top of world rugby.

Gatland (centre) began his rugby career at Hamilton Boys' High as a youngster

With the Celtic clash against Ireland just a few days away, I've driven down from Auckland to uncover the seeds of Gatland's rugby philosophy and success. And there are clues everywhere you look.

"Warren had a very serious approach to his schoolwork," remembers his old maths teacher Joe Johnson. "But sport has always been hugely important at this school, and Warren was obsessed with it."

Gatland's headmaster in the late 1970s was Tony Steel, former All Black regular himself and a man who demanded hard work and high standards from his promising young charges.

"Tony spent a fair amount of time mentoring any good sporting student - bringing them in individually, asking them what they were doing, what they had planned," says Johnson. "He laid a very solid foundation for a lot of the guys."

Gatland, brought up by his parents Kaye and Dave on nearby Lawrence Street, showed both an aptitude for sport and an early tactical nous that set him apart from his pimply peers.

Andrew Strawbridge was his best mate from the age of seven and they played in the same cricket and rugby teams at school, shared a house together afterwards and went on to play more than 100 games together in the great Waikato team of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"Gatty actually taught me how to play rugby," he tells me. "I'd been all about soccer until then.

"He was a pretty talented bloke. He was a very good cricketer, opening the batting, keeping wicket, bowling fast. If he'd had the same passion for cricket as he did rugby I'm sure he could have made it in that.

"Even as kids he thought outside the square a lot. He was always prepared to experiment with the way we did things.

"At one point we didn't have a decent goal-kicker. So Warren practised and practised and turned himself into a pretty good one.

"He was actually originally a number eight. He didn't move to hooker until later, when he didn't grow tall enough to stay in the back row."

On the pitch the emphasis was on running rugby, off it personal responsibility. The school's motto is "Sapiens fortunam fingit sibi" - the wise man carves his own fortune - something Gatland's old history teacher and rugby coach Peter Skerman believes he took to heart.

"He had a good enquiring mind, and was very mature as a player," says Skerman, who now teaches Gatland's son Bryn.

"Warren was always a very good thinker and very good strategist for a young person. He had a very good rugby brain on those young shoulders, an ability to size up an opposition and to come up with a strategy to reply to what they were doing."

He digs out a team photo of the school 1st XV from 1980. There, in the centre of the front row, sits skipper Gatland, implausibly dark-haired and fresh-faced.

He was not always as innocent as he looked. "The first time I ever wagged school [played truant] was with Warren," remembers Strawbridge. "He did what he had to do in class, but he certainly led me astray a little bit."


Coach Warren Gatland helped Wales clinch the 2008 Six Nations Championships:PHOTO: PA   

Was the deep-thinking coach and tactician of today evident in the young man?
"I remember one time when we were playing a lads versus dads cricket match at school," says Strawbridge.

"We were about 14, and a bloke called Bruce Pairaudeau was batting. He'd played Test cricket for the West Indies, and although he was about 50 by then, we just couldn't get him out.

"I was keeping wicket, Gatty was at first slip. He turned to me after a bit and pointed out that old Bruce was backing up quite a long way at the non-striker's end.

"He'd worked it out: next time the ball came through to me, I was to toss it to him quickly. So the ball comes through, I flick it to Warren and he throws down the stumps at the bowler's end. Bruce is out.

"To me it says a lot about the man he is - not only his tactical brain, but the skill level to throw down those stumps from slip. He'd worked it all out."

In 1982, his final year at the school, Gatland was named Sportsman of the Year. "Easily one of the most skilful forwards in the country," purred The Hamiltonian, the city's local paper.

The successes were to continue over at Rugby Park with Waikato. With Strawbridge in the backs, Brent 'Buck' Anderson in the second row and future All Blacks coach John Mitchell at eight, the Mooloo Men punched above their provincial weight.

With the notoriously violent Richard Loe at loose-head and reliable Graham Purvis at tight-head, hooker Gatland formed part of an infamously fierce front row.

"Gatty was very strong at the set-piece, and had a great catch-pass game for a front row," recalls Strawbridge.

"As a kid he had very good skill levels, and although the scrummaging took its toll and made him less mobile than he had been, he could still see things before others did, and he had the tackling ability going back to his old days as an eight.

"I'm not at all surprised that's he's gone on to become such a good coach. We achieved a lot in that Waikato team, with that very proficient front row and Mitch in the boot, and Gatty always thought a lot about the way we played the game.

"Mitch wasn't so tactically astute - more of an 'I'm going over the top, follow me!' approach. Warren was more, 'This is how we get round them.'

Gatland went on to play a record 140 times for Waikato, denied more than his 17 All Blacks appearnces by the presence of Sean Fitzpatrick in the number two jersey.

Down at the clubhouse he remains a legend, "a Waikato man through and through," as Skerman puts it, and came back to coach them to the Air NZ Cup after schooling in his new trade at northern hemisphere stop-offs like Galwegians and Connacht.

His achievements in Galway got him the Ireland job, where he gave Ronan O'Gara and current captain Brian O'Driscoll their international debuts and masterminded a first victory over France in Paris in 28 years; his later spell at Wasps forged the key relationship with Shaun Edwards, who as Wales' defence coach will be tasked with stopping O'Driscoll and O'Gara in Wellington on Saturday.

But it is in Hamilton that Gatland remains rooted, still owning a house on the banks of the Waikato River, returning here from Wales to be with wife Trudi when work allows.

He was back at the Boys' High last week before the pool match against Fiji, inducted into the school's hall of fame a year after bringing his touring Wales side into a school assembly ("the boys sang 'Men of Harlech'," remembers Joe Johnson), and in this city when he took the phone call from WRU chief executive Roger Lewis, almost exactly four years ago, that led to him to accepting the job of Wales head coach.

At Waikato home games, supporters like to sing something called the Mooloo Song:

Bells are ringing high
Bells are ringing low
Living in the land
Of the mighty Waikato.

Life is just a ball
You kick with your toe
Ain't no other place
That we'd ever wanna go.

Does Gatland know the words? Stick your savings on it.

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