The position of British and Irish Lions head coach is supposed to be one of the most sought-after in rugby, but yesterday Joe Schmidt and Warren Gatland were doing their utmost to distance themselves from the role.
Schmidt’s reason was simple — his contract with Ireland does not permit him to take the role.
Gatland’s was far more blunt: he feels the schedule for next year’s tour of New Zealand is bordering on the suicidal and will almost certainly render it impossible for the Lions to claim back-to-back series victories.
The Wales head coach added he would take the job if offered — and that is almost certain to be the case — but his comments were stark and present a major headache for the Lions board.
Having presided over the victory in Australia back in 2013, Gatland is seen by many as a shoo-in for the job this time around, with the appointment of a new head coach expected after the summer tours.
But Gatland feels the schedule is almost conspiring against the touring team. The Lions’ first game of next year’s tour is on June 3 against a Provincial Union Team in Whangerei — a week after the finals of both the Pro12 and Aviva Premiership.
Then between June 7 and July 8 the tourists will play all five Super Rugby sides, the New Zealand Maori and three Tests against the All Blacks.
It is also thought that some of the Home Nations head coaches were asked for input on how the tour schedule should look, with their recommendations largely ignored.
If the Lions do win it will be very much against the odds, something Gatland was keen to make clear when he said Schmidt could have the job.
“He can have the job if he wants,” said Gatland of Schmidt. “Have you seen the schedule? Going to New Zealand and you play three Tests, five Super Rugby teams and the New Zealand Maori, and you try and win there? With no preparation? He can have it.”
So, is it impossible for the Lions to win? “I’m not saying the Lions can’t win,” said Gatland. “It’s a tough schedule. It’s the hardest place in the world to play, not just from a rugby perspective but a travel and organisation perspective. Look, it’s not unwinnable but it is very, very tough.
“When you look at the schedule you go: Premiership Final on the Saturday, the Pro12 on the Saturday. The team then has a going away dinner on the Sunday. Fly on the Monday, you arrive the Wednesday and your first game is on that Saturday with the squad not even being together? Then you play a Test match two or three weeks later? It’s quite tough.
“I have been very lucky to be involved in a couple of tours and if you get offered the opportunity to be involved again it is a difficult one to turn down.
“But if you weren’t involved and didn’t get it you might say: ‘thank my lucky stars’, and go and enjoy it as a supporter and spectator and enjoy it from that angle.”
Those words will worry the Lions, as will Schmidt’s insistence he cannot be released from his Ireland contract for the 12-month sabbatical the role requires.
The New Zealander’s deal expires in 2017, and he believes there is no way he can extract himself from that a year early if asked to lead the Lions.
“To be honest, the terms of my current contract don’t allow me to do the Lions, so it’s actually a moot point,” said Schmidt of the potential of leading the Lions.
“It doesn’t distract me because it isn’t actually something I can do unless the terms of my contract change.
“I finish at that time and there’s some outside influences on that that will probably dictate anything beyond that.
“So I’m not planning for beyond where my contract finishes, and to be honest, if you’re a coach sometimes you don’t even get to the finish of it because that’s the harsh reality, it’s a very success-driven environment.”
Clearly, Gatland is the front-runner. He has a philosophical view of life, believing that if he looks after Wales the Lions will follow automatically.
“I am a great believer in what will be,” said Gatland. “I am not thinking about the Lions. Our focus is on the Six Nations and then a tour of New Zealand in the summer.
“If you do well, those other things take care of themselves. That is the way my rugby coaching career has been. I haven’t got a rugby CV.
“I wouldn’t know how to put one together. I have been lucky enough to be the right place at the right time and what will be, will be.”
The fear is that the Lions are on to a loser before they even begin – no matter who is appointed head coach.
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