Having spent two seasons apiece with the Blues and the Highlanders, the 25-year-old has finally signed a full-time contract with the Super Rugby side that he grew up supporting from an early age.
In 2013, Gatland drop-kicked the Hamilton Boys’ High School First XV to national glory. Three years later, he did the same for North Harbour against Otago to win his province promotion to the Mitre 10 Premiership. Earlier this season, it was the Chiefs who he consigned to defeat, bashing over a 35-metre drop goal with the Highlanders.
“I’m hoping that Chiefs supporters have forgotten about that kick but I’m probably going to get a bit of stick for a bit,” Gatland told The XV ahead of the Chiefs squad announcement for 2021.
“It was actually interesting, when I went down to Dunedin to play for the Highlanders, there were a fair few Otago supporters that came up to me and said ‘I remember when you did that drop goal against Otago for Harbour’. It’s almost like it’s a repeat, coming back up here.”
Chances are slim that the fly-half’s feats will be forgotten anytime soon – but all will likely be forgiven if Gatland can help the Chiefs improve on their disappointing record in 2020.
It was a year that started out with huge promise. Bryn’s dad Warren, a proud Waikato man and the longest-serving and most successful Wales coach in history, had returned home to take over the reins as head coach.
Early season victories over the Blues, Crusaders, Sunwolves and Waratahs had the Chiefs in pole position when COVID struck but it all fell apart when Super Rugby Aotearoa kicked off, with the side failing to register a single win from their eight matches in the revamped competition.
Rather than fearing entering a new environment that’s still recovering from a poor campaign, Gatland is relishing what’s coming.
“It was actually interesting, when I went down to Dunedin to play for the Highlanders, there were a fair few Otago supporters that came up to me and said ‘I remember when you did that drop goal against Otago for Harbour’. It’s almost like it’s a repeat, coming back up here.
“I love a challenge, an underdog kind of situation, where you go in there and you’ve got nothing to lose and you just try to do everything you can to benefit the team and do everything that’s going to get the team going better,” he said.
“All those things, you can think about them negatively or positively. I choose to think about them positively. That’s the way I’m going to approach it. What have you got to lose? 0 and 8? We’ll see if we can go 8 and 0.”
It’s no surprise that the 25-year-old is taking the challenge in his stride. Despite starring for Hamilton Boys’, Gatland has struggled to break into the professional ranks.
Having spent two years with Waikato in 2014 and 2015, Gatland found himself unable to break into the staring team due to the presence of Damian McKenzie, Stephen Donald, Sam Christie and Wharenui Hawera.
When his contract came to an end in 2015, Gatland knew that he had to look elsewhere if he wanted to progress his career.
“It was tough for me because I’d been a Waikato boy my whole life and obviously I wanted to play for Waikato,” said Gatland. “But sometimes it’s not really about where you want to be, it’s more about where you are going to play, or where you’re going to get an opportunity on the field.
“The opportunity to go to North Harbour came up and I looked at the Blues as well, and who the first-fives were there because you’ve got to be thinking of the next step as well. Looking at all the options, that was probably my best opportunity to get on the field and just expose myself and show what I could do.”
Gatland quickly made strides following his move to Harbour for the 2016 season and was rewarded with a contract with the Blues. Super Rugby game time still wasn’t easy to come by, however, and a shift south to the Highlanders eventuated in 2018 – but only after lining up against his dad’s touring British and Irish Lions team in 2017 for a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
It was tough for me because I’d been a Waikato boy my whole life and obviously I wanted to play for Waikato. But sometimes it’s not really about where you want to be, it’s more about where you are going to play, or where you’re going to get an opportunity on the field.
While the move to the Highlanders was hopefully set to pave the way for some greater on-field opportunities, a freak injury suffered against the Sunwolves just weeks into the season put the fly-half on ice.
Gatland was initially told that there was a chance he’d never play rugby again. That obviously didn’t prove to be the case, but he still had to spend the remainder of 2018 on the sidelines. In his absence, Josh Ioane established himself as the Highlanders first-choice pivot and even upon his return from injury this year, Gatland was always on the outer.
Somewhat serendipitously, the Chiefs came calling – there was a gap to fill in their roster with Aaron Cruden heading to Japan. The contract was sorted during Super Rugby Aotearoa which, Gatland admitted, may have put an end to any chances he had for match time with the Highlanders – but it also meant he could enter the provincial season with North Harbour without any pressure on his shoulders.
Despite Warren Gatland’s long-term contract as coach, he played no role in the negotiations – for obvious reasons.
“The interesting thing was they actually left my dad completely out of it,” Gatland Junior said.
“Once they told him that they were interested, he basically said ‘Yep that’s fine, if you guys want to do that, it’s cool’ – especially because he’s not going to be here for the following year, he said he didn’t want to be a part of it.
“Mike Collins, the CEO, was the one who first approached me and wanted to have a conversation. I talked with Clayton, talked with Rog [Chiefs assistant coach Roger Randle], it was all done through them. It was nothing to do with the old man, which was actually quite nice thing to have.”
Gatland admitted that while he wouldn’t have been turned off from signing with the Chiefs if his dad had been in charge, his absence for 2021 gives the playmaker an opportunity to establish himself in the team without any side plots dominating the airwaves.
“It wouldn’t have bothered me, wouldn’t have bothered him – I’ve never been coached by him before so there’s a first time for everything, but I am looking forward to having that first year to be able to potentially establish myself without him being there and no media scrutiny, things like that.
“When I was younger, I never wanted to be put in a position where I potentially made a team or was playing because my dad was coaching or whatever. That never happened, and that’s fine, but obviously, when you get to this level, those decisions should almost not even be thought about because you don’t play professional rugby, especially at Super Rugby level or higher, and get picked because your dad’s the coach – it just doesn’t work like that.
“But without him there next season, it’s just a chance for me to get in there and have a crack at it with no sort of side-nonsense really.”
It wouldn’t have bothered me, wouldn’t have bothered him – I’ve never been coached by him before so there’s a first time for everything, but I am looking forward to having that first year to be able to potentially establish myself without him being there and no media scrutiny, things like that.
And while Gatland is looking forward to his homecoming, he’s under no impression that he’ll simply be able to wander into the side and nab the No. 10 jersey without any competition.
Cruden and Tiaan Falcon have both finished their tenures with the Chiefs and will play in Japan next year. While Cruden was the preferred fly-half for the Chiefs in the early stages of 2020, Gatland opted to hand 21-year-old Kaleb Trask the playmaking duties later in the season, presumably with an eye to 2021.
Trask spent much of his 2020 Bay of Plenty provincial campaign under Clayton McMillan playing at fullback, however, which complicates the picture.
All Black Damian McKenzie will certainly remain the Chiefs’ first-choice No. 15 moving forward, which likely means Gatland will be going head-to-head with Trask to start at fly-half.
“Trasky’s had an awesome season with the Bay and he did some really good stuff in a Chiefs jersey in his first season playing Super and obviously learning off Crudz and doing some good things there,” Gatland said. “The good thing is that there will be competition and that only makes you better and hungrier for it.
“Trust me, I’m under no illusion that I’m going to be walking in there straight into the 10 jersey. It’s going to be tough but I’m ready for it. Hopefully, I get a crack.”
The 25-year-old is naturally looking forward to finally having the opportunity to wear the Chiefs jersey – and being a bit closer to his friends and family.
“I loved my time down south,” Gatland said “Great people, great environment, you get to play under a roof every second week and train under it. Everything’s five minutes away, you can go for a round of golf in five minutes. Text the boys and go for a coffee. I’ll miss that a lot. But as far as being home and being around family and friends, it’s a really exciting thing for me.
“It’s hard when you’re not around friends and family when you’re not playing. When I was down south, I loved the place and the people and all my teammates and stuff but my only real family and friends were my teammates.
“They were all awesome, so that was great, but sometimes it can be tough when you’re putting all your hard work into training and training and training and you want something but you’re not actually getting on the field as much as you’d like. So being closer to family is always going to be a positive.”
Of course, if things go Gatland’s way, he’ll be getting ample game time with the team he grew up supporting. While he had offers on the table from overseas clubs, the lure of proving his talents in New Zealand, proving himself for his local team, in front of his friends and family, simply proved too strong.
“I’m really looking forward to the move and it also gives me a good chance to do what I actually want to do in New Zealand rugby – that’s actually playing some minutes and be a starting first five.
“I feel like if I can continue on the form from Mitre 10 Cup and just grow on it, I think I’ll be heading in the right direction. That’s all you need, just some consistency and game time, whatever team you’re at, to show ‘this is what I can do, this is what I can get to – I’m going to keep getting better if you let me.’
“I just feel like I haven’t done what I feel like I could do in New Zealand yet. I feel like I would have regrets leaving and I’d always wonder, ‘what if?’
“I’m only 25 years old. As a first five, that’s still pretty young. I just feel like I’ve had spurts here and there of some good stuff and then obviously injury hasn’t helped and things like that. Hopefully, things go better this time and if not, at least and I can say that I had a good crack at it.
“I’m just really excited to be here, and put my best foot forward, and do everything I can wearing these Chiefs colours.”
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