Warren Gatland reveals "sinister" phone abuse

Publish Date
Saturday, 2 December 2023, 9:26AM

By Warren Gatland

Owen Farrell’s decision to step back from England duty to protect the mental health of him and his family must be a wake-up call for all of us.

As professionals working in sport, we are all in the spotlight, and we understand that. One of the great things about rugby is the diversity of opinions and as professionals we have to accept the criticism that comes with it. It is just when it becomes personal or toxic that it crosses the line, something which is sadly becoming more common these days.

What I have experienced is no doubt mild in comparison to what the likes of Owen have had to suffer, but it still has an impact.

I can still vividly remember a comment that I read after my son Bryn had just missed a long-range kick at goal from the sideline when he had come on for the Auckland Blues. It said something like: “I couldn’t care if Bryn Gatland didn’t wake up tomorrow morning.”

I am old enough and have been long enough in this game to shrug off most barbs, but as a father that one was hard to take. It was why I could completely understand Andy Farrell’s defence of his son following the vitriolic abuse Owen received following his red card for his tackle against Taine Basham during our defeat by England at Twickenham in August.

"At first I thought it was a joke, then I realised it was more sinister"
I am largely protected from the abuse because I am not on social media, but my family are, and they see things and it can seep through. And, for a few years now I have been targeted by a troll who managed to get hold of my mobile phone number and has been sending me smart, snidey comments.

I had just been talking about it with my wife Trudi on Wednesday before the news broke of Owen’s decision.

At first I thought the messages were just a joke from a mate. I had previously lived in Ireland, and it just came up as a message from an Irish number. I didn’t give it much thought. Had I given my number to someone and not stored his name? Was someone just taking the piss?

Yet the messages kept coming, not many but about half a dozen times a year, usually if we had lost a game, attempting to make a sarcastic comment or jibe. It was then I realised it was not a joke, but something more sinister.

To make sure I knew the messages were coming from the troll, I saved his number under the name ‘Irish d---head’.

Then, during the Six Nations I received a message from the same number, but this time his name came up on his WhatsApp message profile. Perhaps he didn’t realise, or perhaps he just didn’t care. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to do, whether it went back to my decision to drop Brian O’Driscoll from the Lions third Test against Australia in 2013.

I looked him up on the internet and established that he appeared to be a managing director of some company in Dublin. I thought about turning up at his office one day when I was back in Ireland and asking him directly why he was sending me messages.

I could not help wondering why someone who is roughly the same age as me would be engaged in this sort of thing and what his company would make of it.

My return as head coach of Wales at the start of this year saw the messages resume. The first one landed the day after we had lost to Ireland in my first game back as Wales head coach in the opening round of the Six Nations this year. ‘Having fun old stock?’ he wrote on Feb 5. ‘Where’s Delilah when you need her?’

He followed it up on March 19, the day after our defeat by France in Paris in the final match of the championship. ‘Another glorious campaign pal!’ he wrote.

It was not a police matter, as the messages were never threatening, but I wanted him to stop. So instead, I replied to him, on March 25, letting him know that I was aware of his identity too. ‘Dan, I don’t think you need to message me at all.’

It seemed to have worked. Until, minutes before our crunch World Cup pool match against Australia in Lyon, I looked down to see my phone light up with another message. ‘Waltzing Matilda…’ he wrote. Funnily enough, I didn’t hear back from him after our 40-6 win.

The messages may seem trivial, but it is unsettling to know that someone you don’t know has your number and can message you at any time.

The reason why I am saying this is that I think it is unacceptable. I love coaching and am loving it now with Wales again, but I must admit there have been times in the past when I have said to Trudi that maybe it was time to walk away, go to the beach, put my feet up and have a glass of wine.

Others have had it much worse. We have seen Tom Foley, who was the television match official for the World Cup final between South Africa and New Zealand last month come out this week and reveal he has since received death threats. Last week it was Wayne Barnes, one of the game’s top referees, who revealed the level of abuse he received, including threats to his wife and children, and I thought that was disgusting.

"It is time to stand up for each other a bit more"
It is a sad day for rugby and a sad day for sport to see someone of Owen’s standing in the game have to make the decision to walk away from the international stage just to protect his family.

It has gone too far. Even though the players are in the spotlight and earning good money, they come under incredible pressure despite coming out week after week to put their bodies on the line for club and country.

Owen is an absolute warrior and a winner. Look what he has achieved in the game: England captain, record points scorer and the trophies that he has won. I have worked with him during three British and Irish Lions tours and seen those attributes up close.

I like to think that 99 per cent of the population are good people and it is just the one per cent who come on and make comments either to get a kick out of it or because they think that they can be vitriolic without having an impact. But they definitely do, even if I think that Owen has been good at giving the impression that external criticisms have not affected him.

Ultimately the rugby community cares about people and I think it is time for the vast majority of us who are disgusted about what is happening to stand up for each other a bit more, or if you see something online that is out of order, shoot it down.

It is time for the silent majority to become the loud majority and call out these people. The hardest thing is that a lot of the trolls are about to write what they like because their profiles are anonymous, so they can say whatever they want without any comeback. Maybe it is time for everyone’s social media identities to be made public.

In many ways Owen’s decision represents a watershed moment for the game. I just hope that if he gets a bit of a break from all the pressure, he will decide to come back and play for England again. He is a player that you enjoy coaching against – or having in your team because he does bring so much to a contest. It is obvious how much it means to him and all of us who are trying to promote the game want characters and winners and players who people look up to being involved in competitions like the Six Nations.

But, ironically in making his decision, it might be the best thing for the game in that it will highlight some of the terrible things that are happening in rugby, particularly on the social media front. Given what Owen has achieved in the game, he probably doesn’t realise, but I think it will have a positive impact and make people sit up and make a stand.

This article was first published on nzherald.co.nz and is republished here with permission

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