‘Once a wasp, always a wasp’

Warren Gatland: “Are you causing trouble in Connacht?”

Peter Bracken: “No, I just don’t get picked.”

Gatland: “Well, do you want to come with us?”

Bracken ignored his answer for a full millisecond before answering yes to the London Wasps boss.

The then 27-year-old prop had spent time on the margins of the Munster squad, but had made his breakthrough in Connacht.

There were good times for the Offaly native under Steph Nel when he started out with the Westerners, but a change of coach from a former attacker to a former defender meant he felt a little less understood.

“I was the first choice there for the first two years and I loved it,” Bracken told RTÉ Sport.

“Steph Nel was the head coach and everything went very well.

“I loved my time in Galway with Connacht, the people were great, the supporters were great.

“Michael Bradley took over and I could barely get a game for love or money.

“I was kind of rotting. I never really figured out why. I just kept stopping and wondering where I was going.

“I played under him for two years, but only got a handful of games.”

Gatland, of course, had a past with Connacht and Ireland by the time he led Wasps, who take on Thomond in Munster on Sunday afternoon, to their first Heineken Cup win in 2004.

The following season, looking to bolster his front row options, the Kiwi picked up the phone.

“He called me and the first thing he said was, ‘Are you causing trouble in Connacht?’,” Bracken recalled.

‘No,’ I said, ‘I just don’t get elected’ and he didn’t really understand. That was a good start to the conversation.

“He had checked on me, talked to guys in Galwegians and Connacht and he got the same story from them, that I just didn’t get picked.

“He asked if I wanted to join and I said yes and from there it went.

“It was so good that I couldn’t get a game for Connacht, but the European champions wanted me to come and play with them.

“So I did my best. I got my few matches for Connacht at the time, but I made my decision and one of the goals was to be in the best shape to arrive at Wasps.”

But it almost never happened when Bracken got caught up in the middle of a tug-of-war between two London parties.

“There was a problem with Harlequins at the time because before Gatland called me they had asked me to come with them,” he said.

“I said yes on the condition that if they went into effect, the agreement would be null and void.

“Gatland understood when I explained that and he said, ‘See how it goes.

“Harlequins eventually relegated and I was all set to go to Wasps.

“I went there, had my first training session and got a call from Harlequins, who wanted to know why I wasn’t training?

“I told them about my agreement with the person involved and it made them all grumpy. Long and short it was that they said ‘Look, you’re either playing with us or you’re not playing rugby. You’ve already signed’ .

“I told them I had a verbal agreement and then I was probably a little innocent and learned that verbal agreements mean nothing when it comes to business.

“I held on, they got fat, I got fatter. They were dealing with an Offaly man, so… you know.

“It went sour, there was talk of a court and there was no turning back, it seemed.

“At that point I was not playing for two years, but in the end they kind of made sense and wasps supported me and luckily it all got sorted out.

“And I had proven my commitment to Wasps when this was going on and I told them I’m not going anywhere, I’m playing with you.”

Bracken made a good first impression, breaking some weightlifting records in the gym, a fun way to break some ice in a squad that includes World Cup winners Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley and Josh Lewsey.

When Dallaglio broke his ankle during the Lions tour in 2005, he rehabilitated with Bracken, who had a minor problem the summer he joined.

“Lawrence was a great captain,” said the former Irish U18 and ‘A’ international, who also represented the Barbarians against England in 2006.

“He was on the Lions tour and got injured and came home. At the same time, I got injured in pre-season and ended up training with him for about two weeks.

“We got to know each other quickly. We did a hard workout in the morning, in the pool or whatever, and he would buy me breakfast, take me back to training, so I was very under this wing.

“The day you arrive at the clubs you are treated as if you have been there for 50 years.

“Look, there were big names there, but I knew what I was getting into before I went there.

“There were a lot of matches in those two years where I was the only unrestricted player in the 22. They had all played with their country, I got to Ireland ‘A’ which was brilliant but I never got a full cap on it end.

“But to play in that environment was great.

“In European rankings, Connacht was way behind, Wasps were on top, but there wasn’t much difference in the conditioning. The talents and the coaching were the difference.

“And there was a big heart in the club.”

Two years later, Bracken was European champion, one of an elite group of Irish players – Trevor Brennan (Toulouse 2003 and 2005) Eoin Reddan (Wasps 2007), Geordan Murphy (Leicester 2001 and 2002), Ian Whitten (Exeter 2020) – who were outside their home country played and won a Heineken Cup final.

In addition, Brian Roche (Bath 1998), Johnny O’Connor (Wasps 2004 and 2007), Jeremy Staunton (Wasps 2007) and Gareth Steenson (Exeter 2020) all played a big part in their respective teams’ Heineken Cup victories without being in the last.

Bracken (second from left) celebrates with the Wasps team

“It was a brilliant day, the highlight of my career,” smiled Bracken, who came on in the final against Leicester as Wasps stunned the Tigers, with Leo Cullen on the team, 25-9 at Twickenham.

“All the training and sacrifices, all the pints you missed as a young fellow.

“It all came together.

“Sport is funny in that way because I had experienced the emotion of losing a Heineken Cup with Munster, even though I was not on the match day panel in 2000.

“The semi-final against Toulouse was great, Northampton in the final.

“I was involved when that journey in Munster all started, they went from strength to strength.

Bracken (c) with Mick Galwey and Frankie Sheahan (r)

“A few years later, Munster beats Biarritz; John Hayes shuts out the scrum and Peter Stinger goes blindside, scores the try and they win.

“I watched the game with Joe Ward, who later went on to play with the English Saxons, in Wasps. We looked at each other and promised to do it next year.

“The following year we won the Anglo-Welsh Cup (above), but we missed the Premiership semi-final and we didn’t win the European Cup.

“We signed at the same time. We arrived and they were European champions.

“It was an unspoken kind of thing, but a few of us, guys who had just joined, thought, ‘We better do something here and make an impact.’

“Because we came and they lost a title, I said to Joe, ‘Next year we’ll be in the Heineken Cup final’ and we were and we both got into the final.”

Bracken left that summer and had spells with Bristol, Harlequins (“we kissed and made up”), Dragons and Carcassonne in France.

After retirement he took up coaching and, now based in Castlebar and a full time carer, still finds some time to work as a Scrum Doctor specializing in teaching the intricacies of that dark place to clubs.

He was the striker coach of Ireland Women when they defeated New Zealand, reached the semi-finals of World Cups and won Grand Slams.

Bracken (back row 6r) with the Irish team in 2013

The 44-year-old is confident that Greg McWilliams, who was also part of the coaching ticket between 2010 and 2014, is the right person for that challenge.

“If there’s one man to figure it out, it’s Greg,” he said.

The former Tullamore RFC attacker also has a keen interest in electric cars, whizzing through all of Offaly’s 42 GAA clubs in his battery-powered motor only last week.

“I do the whole thing about electric cars as a hobby, I’ve been into everything about the environment and sustainability,” he added, “without being a hippie.”

Since Bracken’s time, Wasps have been champions of England, narrowly avoiding relegation, changing his name and moving to Coventry, but despite the changes and the time that has passed there is no doubt who he will be screaming for today.

“One of Wasps’ mottos is ‘Once a wasp, always a wasp’. I am wasps through and through, there is no hesitation.”

Follow Stade Francais v Connacht (1pm) and Munster v Wasps (3.15pm) via our live blogs on rte.ie/sport or on the RTÉ News app.

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