HAMILTON, New Zealand — As the British & Irish Lions walk out for their pre-game run-through at Eden Park on Saturday, Warren Gatland will follow them and start scanning the crowd looking for three familiar faces. His wife, Trudi, and two children, Gabby and Bryn, will be waving. When he spots them he will stretch his arms out as if he is about to take flight.
The favourite bedtime story in the Gatland household as Gabby and Bryn were growing up concerned a competition between Big Nutbrown Hare and Little Nutbrown Hare over who is most fond of the other. Bryn would always try and go one better than Warren, he’d start at the end of the road, ‘I love you to the end of the road and back’, then head up to the moon, stars and so on — competitiveness runs from father to son — until one day Warren replied, ‘I love you big much’.
George North? Gone. Leigh Halfpenny? Benched. Sam Warburton, the tour captain? Benched. Warren Gatland’s team for the first Lions Test was a shock — but a positive decision.
The British & Irish Lions face a gruelling 10-game tour of New Zealand, including three Tests against the All Blacks. ESPN will be there with full, up-to-date coverage every step of the way.
“You can’t love someone more than that,” explains Trudi, and Warren had won. In the story Big Nutbrown Hare makes the same gesture Warren does to his family before matches.
“You see the gesture picked up sometimes in photographs,” Bryn, now 22, says. “And people are thinking it means something about the game, but he’s doing it to us in the crowd out in the middle of the pitch.”
“That’s why it doesn’t feel like that’s the Lions coach down there, it’s like, ‘oh there’s Dad’,” Gabby, two years older than Bryn, says. “Then after the Maori game he gave me and Bryn a couple of little signs and any one could’ve been looking at him, but he doesn’t care, he was looking at us.”
‘Big much’ is written above one of the windows at their beach house in Waihi; the family home in Hamilton is on the banks of the Waikato River. It is in the most idyllic spot, and is overwhelmingly welcoming with hints of Warren’s rugby life dotted around. This is the Gatland household.
It is the Tuesday morning before the Chiefs game. The kitchen still has a few remnants of the previous night’s entertainment with two dozen wine glasses by the sink. Trudi had invited the management to their house for some drinks. Coffee is poured, and Trudi’s children Bryn — a fly-half who played against the Lions for the NZ Provincial Barbarians — and Gabby — who is in her final year at law school — join.
They are a little wary of the media, with an article from earlier in the tour concerning Warren’s match up with Bryn in the opener still causing annoyance. It is keyboard warriors on social media who get to Gabby — “I see dad’s face and it’s hard not to click on it if the title is negative”. Bryn had someone contact him directly on Facebook last week with abuse directed at his father. His children have had this before, but they have a rule in the house: no newspapers.
It was a policy they started when Warren was in charge of Connacht, in Ireland, and one Sunday they went to the local shop to pick up the paper. In the car on the way home, he was reading one particularly critical article, and snapped at Bryn who had asked a question. That was it, his work life was never going to invade his family time again.
“So he came home and he scrunched it up, and said ‘we’re never buying the newspaper again’,” Trudi remembers. “He said ‘I’ve bitten Bryn’s head off for nothing because I was up to here and we don’t need that in our life’. Warren’s father is now our censor, telling us what to read.”
“People think it means something about the game, but he’s doing it to us in the crowd.” Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Despite dodging anything negative or positive written about Warren, the backlash from his decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll in 2013 did get through to them. They heard about the call a day or so before it was made public; they were nervous but Warren’s decision was vindicated by their commanding win.
“It was the most nervous he’d been for a result because of that selection choice,” Bryn says. “If it didn’t work out, he knew people would say, well that’s why.”
Watching their father take charge of one of the biggest teams in sport and the stress which goes with it, has resonated with Bryn. He is now thinking twice about heading into coaching after his playing career, as the spotlight is “10 times” brighter than on a player.
But Trudi sees similarities between father and son. “Back in Ireland I remember the kids asking if we have ‘happy daddy’,” Trudi says. “And if they win, it’s ‘yep, we have happy daddy’. Gabby’s the best at getting Warren to forget a match, she’ll do something, or say something and Warren will laugh and breaks down the mood.
“It’s like okay, this is what life’s about. As a family we’ve been doing this since Warren was 34, you know how he is — and it’s the same with Bryn — before a big match.” Bryn, like Warren, tackles pre-match nerves by playing cards, or searches for humour to break the tension.
Sport runs through the Gatland veins and it influenced their decision to remain in New Zealand back in 2007 when Warren got the Wales job.
It was one of the hardest calls they made as a family. They had been back in New Zealand for two-and-a-half years after Warren had left Wasps and took up the job at Waikato. Then came the offer from Wales after the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
Gatland, second left, with wife Trudi, left, daughter Gabby and son Bryn. Gabby Gatland
Gabby had already been through the heartache of leaving friends behind when she left the UK in 2005, aged 12 — “I was bawling my eyes out” — but the emphasis of the New Zealand education system on sport helped swing the decision. Warren was to head to Wales, and the family would stay in Hamilton.
He originally signed a four-year deal with Wales, and was meant to be back after the 2011 World Cup, but is now targeting winning the thing in 2019. Memories of that tournament World Cup and the infamous Sam Warburton red card in the semifinal against France still linger — the desire to put that right is a driving factor for the family.
With the family staying in Hamilton, Warren journeys back from Wales when time allows and they try and get over for the Six Nations and end-of-year Tests. But the distance does hurt.
Dinnertime in the Gatland family, with Warren away, sees the table laid for three people, but there is a space in the middle for the phone, with Warren on loudspeaker. Bryn knows when his dad is pining for home — Sundays are the hardest.
“We know he’s missing us, as when I’m driving back from Auckland to Hamilton, it’s only an hour and a half trip but he’ll call me at the start asking how things are going and we’ll have a chat,” Bryn says. “And then 20 minutes later I’ll get a phone call asking what’s new. And that might be three or four calls in the space of a few hours.”
That is what they have become accustomed to, it’s something they have accepted and adjusted to.
“We all like to think we influence Warren’s selection, but of course we don’t.”
Warren Gatland’s wife, Trudi
It is June 3 in Whangarei. The Lions are preparing to face the Barbarians and it is a busy day for the Gatland family. Trudi has scooped up Gabby and Bryn’s partners, and then popped in to see Bryn and then Warren as husband and son prepare to face one another in the first match of the 2017 tour.
They head to Parua Bay for pre-match nourishment and then head along to Okara Park. Trudi is pleased with the squad, and is helping their friends and families find accommodation in New Zealand after putting them in touch with locals. She is also pleased Sam Warburton is captain.
“We all like to think we influence selection, but of course we don’t,” Trudi says. “Sam Warburton’s always been a favourite of mine because he’s just a good guy right across the board — he doesn’t have any bad behaviours, he’s a gentleman, he’s a professional, he’s a great player and his family are lovely.
“Before the Lions four years ago, we went out for dinner and I said to Warren, ‘can I have a selection’. And he said yeah, and at that stage Sam was captain of Wales, so I said he’d be good on the tour and Warren said okay, I’ll keep that in mind. And then I said ‘okay, can he be captain?’, and he said ‘well now you’re pushing it’. So for this one, he said ‘suppose you want a selection’ and I said ‘yep, I’ll have Sam’.”
They give Warren a call as they head to the game, with family ties split. “It was weird,” Gabby says. “They had a bro hug in the middle before the game, but dad got emotional so he had to go down the tunnel. That was a pretty big deal.
“We were going for Bryn and we wanted him to play well. The hype was that it was going to be a hiding, but then we started watching it and it was like ‘holy s—, they might beat the Lions’.
“It was cool for Bryn and good for his career, but then I was thinking that dad was going to get a lot of criticism if they lost. When Bryn went off, I was delighted for him but I wanted the Lions to pull their heads in and start playing.”
Bryn and dad Warren embrace prior to the Lions’ match against the NZ Provincial Barbarians. Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images
“I knew I had to enjoy the occasion,” Bryn says. “I caught myself on the big screen as I ran out so knew the cameras were on me, but I was having a great time.”
It was the perfect result in the end — Bryn played well, Warren’s Lions won.
It is those moments which make the rollercoaster manageable: the trophies at Wasps, the Ranfurly Shield as a player with Waikato, the 2013 series win with the Lions, the Six Nations championships with Wales. Gabby explains it isn’t dad the coach, and then dad at home — they roll with everything thrown in Warren’s direction.
But when they see him celebrate, and the outpouring of relief after big games, it makes it all worth it. Bryn’s journey as a professional rugby player is in its infancy, but he is well placed to deal with everything that’s thrown at him. He is a Gatland after all.
“You go through so many ups and downs, and that’s maybe 90 percent of it, but then you get a good win and you’re with your mates and that’s when you remind yourself why it’s worth it,” Bryn says. “There are so many outside pressures, people think you’re living a fairytale life but they don’t see what they and their families go through. Dad agrees 100 percent.”
When Warren returns to the family home after guiding Wales through the 2019 World Cup, they will go along and watch Bryn play for whichever club he’s at. Before the match Warren, Trudi and Gabby will stand in the crowd, looking to catch Bryn’s eye, holding out their arms. Bryn will scan the crowd and return the gesture.
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