The New Zealander said yesterday he would be open to the idea of leading a Lions tour for a third time in 2021 after ending his second tour as an unbeaten head coach on Saturday when the three-Test series with New Zealand ended tied following a 15-15 draw in the decider at Eden Park.
Yet he is also understood to be coveting the All Blacks top job, which is expected to become vacant after the 2019 World Cup, although those ambitions, and that of Ireland boss and fellow Kiwi Joe Schmidt, were dealt a blow yesterday by the incumbent, Steve Hansen, who said his successor should be appointed from within the current coaching set-up.
Schmidt is contracted to his employers, the IRFU, until the end of Japan 2019, and Gatland has already announced he will step down as Wales boss after the tournament.
He did not rule out leading the Lions for a third time in 2021, when he could complete the set of being head coach against all three southern hemisphere giants with the Springboks next in rotation, but it is clear there would need to be guarantees from the Lions board, chaired by IRFU treasurer Tom Grace, that he be given proper preparation time with the players to embark on another tour.
The Lions were compromised by a lack of player availability ahead of the 2017 tour with several players involved in domestic finals both in the Guinness Pro12 and Aviva Premiership two days before the squad departed, with all 41 players not gathering as an entity until 24 hours before take-off.
They were then asked to play their opening tour game three days after landing in Auckland and still suffering from jet-lag.
Asked if the 2021 job appealed, Gatland replied: “Possibly. It’s up to the board and the Lions, isn’t it.
“I’m definitely, definitely finishing up after the World Cup with Wales, no matter what. They may get rid of me before the World Cup. I would have been there for long enough and so I don’t know what I’m going to do post-2019, there are no plans at the moment. I’m not worried about the future, I’m not worried about what’s going to happen. I know there will be something out there for me.
“The South African (series) is a little bit easier in terms of the timeframes and the travel and getting there.
“We’d hope also that we don’t let the next four years go before we start planning and putting things in place. Discussions need to take place about just having some reasonable preparation time. I’m not asking for a month. I think a week in the UK or Ireland beforehand, then arriving in South Africa for a week before the first game is reasonable.”
Gatland would also like to see a midweek game removed from the week of the first Test. He had caused controversy by drafting in six additional players for the tour matches against the Chiefs and Highlanders, which took place on the Tuesday before the first and second tests, respectively.
“Maybe not having a midweek game before the first Test and having an opportunity to prepare properly is sensible and reasonable. Hopefully the powers in the game — the four home unions, the clubs — can work together to preserve what, for me and a lot of people who have been out on this tour, is something special.”
The Lions aside, there is sure to be a clamour for the 53-year-old’s signature when he leaves the Welsh set-up after 12 years at the helm, having won two Grand Slams as well as his Lions series win in Australia and upsetting the odds by sharing the spoils with the All Blacks.
Lions tour manager John Spencer declared Gatland the best coach in the world for bringing together players from four countries and moulding them into the first team in eight years to win a Test match on New Zealand soil when they won the second Test 24-21 in Wellington nine days ago. It has left Gatland’s reputation enhanced, not least in his homeland where he has been touted as a potential successor to the current All Blacks coach.
Hansen, though, believes continuity at the top is essential for continued All Blacks success and pointed to his promotion from Graham Henry’s assistant to his successor after the 2011 World Cup success.
Of his current team, Wayne Smith is retiring as defence coach at the end of the summer, saying he wants to spend time with his family away from rugby, paving the way for right-hand man and fellow selector Ian Foster to step up when the 2015 World Cup-winning head coach decides enough is enough.
“I won’t be on the committee that picks it,” Hansen said. “All I know is that there is a massive responsibility that comes with being the All Blacks coach. I know that the union in 2007, after we dropped out of the World Cup in the quarter-final, made the decision to keep Graham, Wayne, and myself. That continuity and the fact that we had to take responsibility for that failure made a massive difference to what happened after that.
“Continuity is a good thing, otherwise you end up chucking everything out and the formula we have got now isn’t perfect but it is pretty good. Having people come in cold makes it harder. It doesn’t mean it is not right but I have got complete faith in whoever sits on the panel at the time and that they will make the right decision for New Zealand rugby. They have been good at it in the past and continue to be very good at it.”