Gat­land’s ABs au­di­tion

What are the chances of the Lions coach even­tu­ally be­com­ing the All Blacks boss?

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT -

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.

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