Having been reappointed as head coach of the British & Irish Lions for their tour to South Africa in 2021, Warren Gatland has reaffirmed that he has his sights set on a New Zealand coaching gig in the near future.
Gatland will take Wales to the World Cup later in the year in his last act as head coach of the team that he has now spent 12 years with. After the global tournament, Gatland will coach the Barbarians against this former side before turning his attention to the upcoming Lions series.
“I’ll focus 100 per cent on the Lions for those 12 months [after the World Cup] and then hopefully have an opportunity to go back to New Zealand and pick up something and then take it from there,” Gatland has said.
Gatland has made it no secret that he wants to coach a Super Rugby side, potentially with an eye to one day coaching his native New Zealand side.
“I would love to be involved with Super Rugby and to challenge myself with that,” he previously told the BBC.
“I want to go back. I have been head coach with Waikato and won a championship there and I want to challenge myself with Super Rugby.”
Gatland’s success with Wales and the Lions is well-known and New Zealand Rugby will be licking their lips at the chance of having the outspoken ex-hooker on the books.
Where, then, could Warren Gatland take over as head coach?
Gatland’s home province of Waikato seems like the obvious destination for the celebrated former player and coach.
Current coach Colin Cooper comes off contract with the 2012 and 2013 Super Rugby champions at the end of 2020, so an interim would need to take over for the 2021 season if Gatland were to join the franchise at the end of the Lions tour.
The Chiefs have achieved mixed results since Cooper took over. The side managed a quarter-final appearance last year and could do the same this season if they can secure a victory against the Rebels in Melbourne this Friday (other results dependent).
Whilst the above seems like a reasonable achievement on the face of it, the Chiefs have performed poorly in 2019 and a quarter-final spot will be more a result of the under-performance of the other teams in the competition than on any form the Chiefs have shown. In a tournament where over half the teams qualify for the finals series, a spot in the knockout rounds should be the minimum required for an experienced coach.
Some have suggested that Cooper’s time with the Chiefs could be done after an unimpressive 2019 season – but with few experienced options available immediately from next year, that might not be the wisest move.
The Chiefs’ biggest issue in 2019 has been their woeful defence, which has appeared to lack any system or structure. The 457 points that the side have conceded this season is the most by any Chiefs team in the history of Super Rugby. That deficiency can’t all be attributed to Cooper, with specialist defence coach Neil Barnes also on the books.
Defence is, of course, one of Gatland’s specialities – the rush defence utilised by Gatland’s charges during the mid-2000’s snuffed many an attack from the opposition. In this year’s Six Nations, Wales conceded a mere 65 points – 35 fewer than the next best side.
Returning to the Waikato region will likely be Gatland’s first choice, given his ties to the province.
The Crusaders are yet to appoint a coach who was had not already spent plenty of time in the franchise surroundings, but they would likely jump at the chance to bring in an experienced campaigner like Gatland.
Current coach Scott Robertson has taken the Crusaders of the 2010’s from also-rans to perennial champions and will likely achieve a third title in as many years in the coming weeks.
Robertson’s contract will conclude once this season ends and if he were to seek an extension then he would be snapped up in a heartbeat. The expectation, however, is that that Robertson has higher aspirations than Super Rugby and will be looking for a position in the All Blacks set up.
Current New Zealand assistant Ian Foster is probably the favourite to take over from Steve Hansen after the World Cup, given the succession system that has been popular in recent times – but a poor result could see a new direction sought. Robertson would appeal as the obvious candidate to step up. Steve Tew’s recent decision to stand down as CEO of New Zealand Rugby could also work in Robertson’s favour.
Whatever the outcome of the All Blacks’ coaching decision, Robertson will likely want to be involved in international rugby one way or another. Whether that’s as an assistant with New Zealand or as a head coach elsewhere is anyone’s guess.
Regardless of the various permutations, there’s a very slim chance that Robertson will still be coaching the Crusaders in 2021.
Gatland’s hard-nosed approach would likely appeal to the Crusaders, who build their game on forward dominance. The major obstacle for Gatland taking over is that a new coach will likely be needed from next year – which will be two years too early for Gatland. If the Crusaders appoint someone in the meantime, are they likely to be content with a two-year deal?
That brings us to the poisoned chalice that is the Blues head coaching role.
The Blues have employed the equal most head coaches of any New Zealand Super Rugby franchise, for good reason.
The Blues have underperformed for the last 15 years and a number of attempts have been made to improve the team’s performance from the grassroots up. No doubt there are issues with the set-up in Auckland – but regardless of the problems, the Blues have had good enough squads over the last decade and a half to achieve considerably more than they have.
One major difference that Gatland would have over the previous Blues coaches is copious experience. The previous four coaches, Leon MacDonald, Tana Umaga, Pat Lam and John Kirwan were all appointed on the back of work they did for, frankly, lesser teams. MacDonald, Umaga and Lam all cut their teeth with provincial sides while Kirwan was head coach at Japan.
Whilst appointing young coaches isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in fact, it’s a natural step up and fair reward for developing coaches), the expectations and hopes thrust upon the head coach of New Zealand’s first Super Rugby champions may require someone with a bit more savvy.
The Highlanders are well equipped in the coaching stakes with Aaron Mauger and Tony Brown both on the books from next year. Mauger has already spent time overseas and will likely be looking to earn his stripes in New Zealand for a number of years while Brown is a prodigious talent and appeals as a long-term candidate for an All Blacks role.
The Hurricanes are the only team in New Zealand whose head coach actually comes off contract at the end of 2021. The Hurricanes probably wouldn’t be as enticing to Gatland compared to other franchises, however, as they don’t have the pedigree of the Crusaders, the home appeal of the Chiefs or the opportunity to redeem a former superpower that comes with the role at the Blues.
If there aren’t any opportunities available at Super Rugby level then Gatland may be asked to bide his time in a different role for New Zealand. Couple a behind-the-scenes role with a coaching position for the likes of Waikato or the New Zealand Under 20s and it might be possible to lock Gatland down for the future.
The chances of an international coach of Gatland’s chops actually stepping down into a provincial role may be a tough ask, however, and the smallest carrot that could entice Gatland home might just be a Super Rugby role.
While there may be few obvious open opportunities for Gatland in New Zealand come 2022, the country would be stupid not to try fit the elder statesman into their systems somewhere. Gatland has proven himself at all levels of the game and with so many experienced campaigners heading overseas to man teams in Europe and Japan, bringing home a coach of Gatland’s calibre would be an excellent coup for New Zealand Rugby.
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