Gatland’s ABs audition
What are the chances of the Lions coach eventually becoming the All Blacks boss?
All Warren Gatland cares about right now is defeating the All Blacks. But as part of that process, could he be working towards one other important victory?
Can Gatland, the enigmatic Kiwi coach of the British and Irish Lions, win over New Zealand at the end of this throwback tour of tours?
More to the point, can the Hamiltonian and former All Black win over the people he most needs to in New Zealand Rugby?
The latter might well present as the most difficult challenge for a fellow who hasn’t exactly endeared himself to the hierarchy at NZR HQ since he severed ties with the Kiwi game in 2007.
Gatland’s coaching future is one of the intriguing subplots to this fabulous series between the No 1 rugby team on the planet, and the composite Home Unions travelling troupe that would dearly like to dethrone the acknowledged kings of the game.
Right now he is ensconced in northern hemisphere rugby. He is on his third tour with the Lions, and his second as head coach. He has been in the top job with Wales since 2007 and will remain there through until the 2019 World Cup in Japan which will be his swansong.
After that the 53-year-old has indicated he will take some time off to ponder his next move. He won’t rush into any decisions, saying he is prepared to give himself as long as six months to determine his next stop. He will not want for suitors.
But surely that next step involves a return to his native New Zealand, where his wife Trudi and children Bryn and Gabby still live while he makes his living in the UK. That seems the logical destination for a man who has repeatedly said he still harbours ambitions of coaching the All Blacks.
All of which begs the question: would there be a place in the New Zealand game for a man whose coaching CV very much stands comparison with that of his All Blacks opposite Steve Hansen?
And would Gatland be prepared to take a step back to take the ultimate stride forward into the job he cherishes above all others?
This is where it gets decidedly interesting. In many ways Gatland is the proverbial riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.
He is clearly an outstanding coach, yet his record against the southern hemisphere nations is abysmal. He is also a proud Kiwi, yet is not above giving his nation, or its rugby followers, a serve when he feels it is justified.
He is a smart, savvy operator, as evidenced by the way he has given as good as he has taken in the inevitable media sideshow with Hansen in the leadup to the opening test. It has been an entertaining back-and-forth, featuring just the right mix of agendas, accusations and restraint.
Yet, it is well known within rugby circles that Gatland has no relationship to speak of with top officials at New Zealand Rugby, which puts him somewhere between a rock and a hard place in terms of any ambition to one day coach the All Blacks.
NZR boss Steve Tew has said Gatland could be a contender to succeed Hansen when he stands aside after the 2019 World Cup, telling The Guardian newspaper: ‘‘Ian Foster is sitting there as a very strong candidate when Steve does finish, but there’ll be others. Joe [Schmidt] is sitting in Ireland and we’d like to have him back. Vern [Cotter] is coaching at a very high level and you wouldn’t rule Gatty out either.’’ Hardly a ringing endorsement. The reality is Gatland might need a Lions series victory over the All Blacks to even enter the race with Hansen’s No 2 Foster who is a redhot favourite to take over the top job when the ‘Big Bear’ finally goes into hibernation. Continuity is the new mantra in New Zealand Rugby, reinforced by Hansen’s success since stepping up after an eightyear apprenticeship under Graham Henry, and Foster has a massive advantage as he continues to soak up the chief’s wisdom from the best seat in the All Black house.
Gatland will likely need to be patient, and perhaps take on a New Zealand Super Rugby role should one be available post-2019. His best chance could be to bide his time and make a play to succeed Foster. By then Tew will probably have moved on too, which might remove his biggest obstacle.
Whether he has the patience and inclination to play the long game remains to be seen. Certainly Gatland might feel frustrated that his international coaching CV, which stretches back to 1998, more than stacks up with Foster’s sole spin as the All Black No 2.
But there is one glaring aspect of Gatland’s coaching record that doesn’t bear close scrutiny. His record with Wales against the three southern hemisphere superpowers is shocking. He is oh-fer (zero wins from 14 attempts) against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa away from Cardiff over his time with the Red Dragons. Home and away he has just three victories in 35 attempts.
Plus, there’s that negative perception around his crash-and-bash ‘‘Warrenball’’ tactics with the Welsh which his critics have labelled one-dimensional and predictable. Gatland notably bristled when the term was brought up by a British reporter early in the tour, and clearly it’s a descriptor he’s none too enamoured with.
It is the Lions that offer him the best hope of erasing that tag. He was lauded for his bold selections and tactical nous when he guided them to that 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies in 2013, and everything he has shown leading into the opening test of this tour indicated he had the 2017 version operating somewhere near peak efficiency.
Gatland has avoided talk of impressing Kiwi rugby people so far on this tour, and Hansen did not want to comment on Gatland’s desire to prove himself in this country when asked about it prior to the first test.
But the All Blacks coach did offer a perspective on his own experience in a similar position: ‘‘When I came back here with Wales I just tried to get our team good enough to compete and maybe win a test, and that didn’t work because we got a hell of a spanking after the All Blacks had just lost to England.
‘‘Look, it’s not about the coach, or it shouldn’t be. It’s got to be about the team and what you’re trying to do as a team, and what you’re trying to build.’’
Ultimately Gatland’s best way to advance his personal ambitions will be via his Lions team. The next fortnight shapes as a defining period.
His record with Wales against the three southern hemisphere superpowers is shocking. He is zero wins from 14 attempts against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa away from Cardiff over his time with the Red Dragons.
Warren Gatland enjoys a laugh at training in Hamilton earlier this week. The British and Irish Lions coach is an outside contender to replace Steve Hansen but a successful Lions tour could change that.