Warren Gatland: The rugby behemoth that the Scots have never quite taken to

Warren Gatland announced as Lions coach in 2016 in Edinburgh
Warren Gatland was announced as Lions head coach in 2016 in Edinburgh, but named just two Scots in it a year later

When the final whistle sounds at Murrayfield on Saturday, win, lose or draw, the entire home crowd will get to their feet and riotously applaud the great Warren Gatland on what will be his last visit to Edinburgh as Wales coach.

Once the appreciative cries of "Wazza! Wazza!" ring around the ground there is an expectation that Gatland will leave his position in the west stand and make his way down to the pitch where he will drink in the applause of the many thousands of Scots who understand what an outstanding operator he has been for Wales and the Lions. He'll wave and smile and clap, then he'll say something like: "I've always had a special bond with these fans. The Scots? A cracking bunch of lads."

There'll be unicorns as well. And flying pigs. The abominable snowman will dance with Lord Lucan while Shergar gallops merrily in the open pastures. Or maybe not.

With his Premiership and European titles with Wasps, his two Grand Slams with Wales, his Lions series win in Australia and his Lions series draw in New Zealand, Gatland is one of the coaching giants of this or any other rugby era.

This talk of his place in the history of the game was posited on Twitter a little while back and in most corners there was debate as to who might be considered the greatest rugby coach of them all - Jim Telfer, Ian McGeechan, Carwyn James, Steve Hansen, Jacques Fouroux, Fred Allen and many more got mentioned - but in Scotland there was a collective ridicule about Gatland even being in the same conversational postcode as the others.

Thorny relationships and unbeaten runs

Scottish rugby's relationship with the Kiwi is a thorny one. In rugby circles here, the very mention of his name can evoke a fairly bitter response. With 10 wins from his 10 Tests against Scotland and a try-count of 32-10 in Wales' favour he is Scotland's bogey man. No coach in the history of the international game has won more Tests against Scotland than Gatland.

Is that part of the reason why there is a certain coolness about the man north of the border? A small part. The giant reason is, of course, Gatland's selections in his two stints as Lions coach and, in particular, his uncompromising view of the Tartan contenders ahead of the 2017 tour to New Zealand.

Scotland beat Ireland and (Rob Howley's) Wales that year and yet when Gatland named his final squad there were 12 Welshmen, 11 Irishmen and just two Scots. The backlash was vicious. "Gatland does not have a good track record in liking people from Scotland," said Ian McLauchlan, the former president of the SRU and the old warhorse of the storied Lions tour of New Zealand of 1971.

McLauchlan, speaking in an official SRU capacity, went for the jugular. "He [Gatland] doesn't come here, does he? He doesn't know the names of the Scottish players... he only knows Stuart Hogg. It's a whole different story what I feel about Gatland. If I told you I'd go to jail."

The Mouse hadn't roared as loudly since going to war with Jazz Muller in all points north and south in '71. And he led the response. A quick look at a Scottish rugby messageboard from the day Gatland equalled the all-time record for the lowest number of Scottish Lions and then tried to explain his rationale was instructive.

"Verbal tripe." "Complete bias." "Utter drivel." "Deliberate arrogance." There were seven mentions of disgrace, eight unbelievables, one guy simply called the whole thing "mince", another was succinct in saying, "Ram it, Gatland". In post after post there was an unmistakeable feeling of injustice and talk of Lions jerseys being swapped for All Blacks jerseys as a form of protest. "Why doesn't Gatland just come out and admit that he hates Scotland," wrote one character while simultaneously attempting to douse the flames of his exploding trousers.

Scotland captain Kelly Brown celebrates victory over Ireland in 2013 as the-then Lions head coach Warren Gatland looks on
Scotland captain Kelly Brown celebrates victory over Ireland in 2013 as the-then Lions head coach Warren Gatland looks on

Going down in flames in Twickenham

The bottom line is that in his two successful stints as Lions coach Gatland has given game-time to 87 players and only nine of them have been Scots. He hasn't sugar-coated the reasons why. In 2017 he said that Scotland's home wins against Ireland and Wales were impressive but since the Lions weren't playing at home he wanted to see what these Scots were like away from home, in somebody else's backyard when the heat was at its most intense.

He didn't see what he wanted to see at Twickenham when Scotland went down in flames and he didn't see it at Saracens when Glasgow were routed in the quarter-final of the Champions Cup. There was a sense that he wasn't overly disappointed that the Scots players had given him a way out of picking them.

He made his calls, took the flak and against all odds the Lions drew a series that they were half-expected to lose 3-0. Gatland was vindicated in 2017 just as he was vindicated in 2013 when he largely ignored the Scots for his first Lions tour to Australia.

And he was vindicated again in 2018 when Scotland went to Cardiff for the opening round of the Six Nations. The Scots were buzzing on the back of some terrific performances. Wales were depleted. Revenge was in the air. No George North, no Liam Williams, no Jonathan Davies, no Dan Biggar, no Rhys Webb, no Sam Warburton, no Taulupe Faletau. They were missing eight Lions and seven Test Lions - and they still won in a landslide.

A 27-point win was even more than Gatland imagined. He displayed a little too much glee in rubbing salt in the Scottish wound later on when he said he'd predicted his team would win by 20 points. He said he told his chief executive, Martyn Phillips, that "We'll batter them".

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'We just have to sit and take it'

That was a hard thing for Scots to hear. Maybe it was unnecessary, but he was right. Scotland had been put under pressure to win on the road and they fell in a heap under the burden. As one Scottish player said at the time: "We'd love to shove his words down his throat, but we've got nothing. We just have to sit and take it."

Without wanting to play amateur psychologist, there might be a deep-set layer of admiration for Gatland among Scotland fans, an appreciation that the guy is a cold-blooded, canny, stop-at-nothing winner. In other words, the kind of unyielding character that Scotland could have been doing with.

Maybe, underneath it all, he's the type of operator they crave, a coach who took over a struggling team and instilled a bloody-minded belligerence that gave them relevance, respect and trophies. It might be buried, but if there is a grudging admiration for him then no wonder.

So, if Gatland's crew make it 11 from 11 against Scotland on Saturday and then kick on to win a third Grand Slam on his watch - the same number Scotland have managed in their entire history - let's hear it for a rugby behemoth. No takers? OK.

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