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Warren Gatland threatened by 'Red Hand' over not picking Ulster-born players

Ex-Ireland boss Warren Gatland recalls warning in his new book

Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland

By David O'Dornan

Top rugby coach Warren Gatland has revealed he was sent a chilling threat when he was in charge of Ireland after being accused of not picking enough Ulster-born players.

Kiwi Gatland, who went on to boss the British and Irish Lions, also said a rugby colleague was approached by the IRA offering to "deal with" men who attacked a loved one.

Gatland took charge of Ireland in 1998, the year the Good Friday Agreement was signed, and after three years he says he had "the deepest respect for Irish rugby".

But he added: "There was a flipside, however, as I knew there would be: after all, I'd seen the soldiers on the streets when I toured Ireland with the All Blacks.

"This flipside took the form of a letter addressed to 'Gatland, Lenihan and Danaher' after the three of us picked our squad for the South Africa trip in 1998.

"It read as follows: 'You biased b*****ds from the south... we understand from our rugby friends that you haven't picked enough players from the north. Enjoy your trip to South Africa. We know where you live.'

"The purported sender? 'The Red Hand of Ulster.' We gave it straight to Special Branch. That was the only time I had personal experience of a threat, although some time later, a senior member of our group was directly affected when his son was badly beaten up and thrown in a skip one Christmas Eve.

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"The IRA made contact with him, saying they knew the identities of those responsible and asking if he wanted them to 'deal with it'. He declined."

In his new autobiography, Pride and Passion, Gatland also revealed how he sprinkled holy water on Ulster hero David Humphreys' boots.

The 56-year-old said: "To have an all-Ireland team playing at the very top level of a major sport, despite all the history and politics and tension between the communities in those four great union-playing provinces, is an extraordinary thing.

David Humphreys
David Humphreys

"When I started with Galwegians, I already had some understanding of the sensitivities at work in the country because I'd made a study of the events surrounding the 1916 Easter Rising and associated matters during my time at university. I think it helped me avoid saying daft things or making dumb mistakes.

"Not that there weren't times when I was just a little irreverent.

"For instance, I remember sprinkling holy water on boots belonging to David Humphreys, very much a man of the Protestant persuasion who was known in the squad as 'First Minister'.

"Did I feel guilty? Not when he kicked five out of five the following day. That was the wicked side of me.

"It came about as our bag man Patrick O'Reilly (Rala) always used to clean David's boots and had holy water from Lourdes as part of his kit."

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