When Warren Gatland’s time as head coach of Wales came to an end and the former hooker put pen to paper for the Chiefs in New Zealand, more than a few eyebrows were raised.
The move itself made sense for Gatland – after all, he’d represented Waikato well over 100 times as a player and also coached the provincial side to a national title in 2006. Taking charge of the Chiefs was the next logical step – and it would likely bring him into contention to coach the All Blacks, which is still likely Gatland’s long-term goal.
The raised eyebrows, however, were a product of the terms of Gatland’s contract, which grants him a season off from his four-year deal to take charge of the British and Irish Lions on their tour to South Africa this year. In Gatland’s absence, Bay of Plenty head coach Clayton McMillan has taken over at the Chiefs for the upcoming season.
It was a strange deal from the get-go, with McMillan not a formal part of the Chiefs coaching set-up until this season. When Gatland returns to the team in 2022, as is planned, McMillan will be forced to step into an assistant role, at best. With four assistants on the books already, however, and other franchises across New Zealand making cuts, it’s impossible to rule out the scenario that there simply might not be enough room in Hamilton for both McMillan and Gatland.
202o also didn’t go as planned for Gatland’s side, with the Chiefs finishing the season in dead last on the Super Rugby Aotearoa ladder. They came within a whisker of besting a number of their competitors, however, and could have just as easily finished in third place on the table, but results are results.
All in all, it’s a less than desirable situation for the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby champions – and things could be about to get considerably more complex thanks to the advent of the coronavirus pandemic.
As it stands, there’s a very real chance that this year’s Lions tour is postponed. COVID-19 is ravaging South Africa at present (not that the UK have the spread of the virus under control either) which means that even if the tour organisers are able to guarantee the tourists’ safety, it’s unlikely that matches will be able to take place in front of live crowds.
The current Currie Cup season in South Africa is being played behind closed doors and with virus cases on the rise, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where things are completely back to normal by July.
Even if small crowds are possible – which is entirely possible – the revenue and funds raised from the tour will be severely diminished. While the Lions tour is a long-standing tradition and the rugby itself stands on its own two feet, even if spectators aren’t present at stadiums, the modern day tour is as much a commercial event as it is a sporting one.
That, of course, makes a 2021 tour a considerably less appealing prospect for everyone involved – which means a postponement until 2022 isn’t out of the question.
While plenty of planning would be needed to rearrange the global calendar, there would be little disruption to the players – but the same couldn’t be said for the coaches, especially Gatland.
"It’s not just about the rugby. It’s the revenue that matters too. The full stadiums, the travelling fans. Lions rugby is nothing without those."
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 7, 2021
If the tour is postponed for a year, then what happens to the Chiefs-cum-Lions coach who is supposed to be returning to the Waikato ahead of the 2022 Super Rugby season?
With McMillan taking charge of the team for the current year, it’s difficult to envisage there being a full-time spot available for Gatland with the Chiefs – especially given the financial hit that New Zealand Rugby endured in 2020.
Perhaps a part-time strategic role might suit Gatland’s needs, but even if everyone is satisfied to the solution for the current year, what happens in 2022?
The Chiefs would lose Gatland for a second year running, likely handing McMillan the coaching job for a second season. If the former police officer can help turn the Chiefs’ fortunes around over two years, then would the powers that be really be comfortable with effectively demoting McMillan to an assistant role, despite doing a stellar job?
That’s not to downplay Gatland’s pedigree. 2020 may not have gone entirely to plan but the Kiwi’s 12 years with Wales bore plenty of fruit and there are few men across the world who would bring as much passion to the Chiefs job as Gatland.
By 2023, however, McMillan might have the Chiefs operating like a well-oiled machine, especially with Brodie Retallick back on hand, and CEO Michael Collins would be remiss to punish the new coach for getting the team back on track after the disappointment of 2020.
What, then, would happen to Gatland?
Perhaps, like Joe Schmidt, Gatland would seek an administrative role in the game – but there’s still every reason to believe that the carrot of the All Blacks hangs above Gatland’s head. That’s a coaching role that would require Gatland to prove himself with a Super Rugby team, however, which puts him back at square one.
Of course, should the Lions tour go ahead as scheduled then things can continue for Gatland, McMillan and the Chiefs and was initially planned – but that’s looking increasingly unlikely by the day.
Some tough decisions will need to be made in the near future – and there will certainly be a few people left unhappy with the outcomes.
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