The announcement this week of Warren Gatland as the British and Irish Lions coach for 2017 came as no surprise to most of the rugby world.
The newly appointed man at the helm, who successfully led the Lions in 2013, has the coaching pedigree and, most importantly, the experience of coaching and working within the Lions setup. What makes his appointment even more interesting this time around though – compared to 2013 – is the fact that next year will see the 52-year-old lead the Lions against his native New Zealand.
Gatland, a former Waikato man in his playing days, will lead the Lions in a ten-game tour schedule that will culminate in the usual fashion of three Tests against the host nation, this time the All Blacks.
However, the Kiwi, who has now coached Wales since 2007, has not been able to defeat the All Blacks once during his time in charge of the Welsh. In fact, only one of the home nations has defeated them at all in that time – England in 2012 – and this record does not bode particularly well for the upcoming tour.
The entire lure of the Lions, of course, is that it is the best players from four nations that are competing together and, therefore, the combined ability of the team should be higher than each individual nation.
This is the element that always gives the fans excitement and the team selection always brings as much interest as some of the early tour games. The task at hand is ominous though, with memories of the 2005 tour to New Zealand still painful for many supporters. Yet, with a Kiwi who knows the landscape and the country in charge, there is also cause for greater hope this time around.
The implications of the tour could prove extremely important to Gatland himself too. As well as being marked by the Lions supporters on the success of the tour, he could find himself also assessed by the New Zealanders on the success of the tour.
Steven Hansen’s position as Head Coach of New Zealand was something of a slight uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 World Cup. He did, however, re-sign until after the 2019 World Cup, ending all rumours of whom may replace him as top dog of the world’s best team in the process.
What becomes interesting though is what will happen with Hansen’s position after the 2019 World Cup. If there was uncertainty over whether he would re-sign as coach of the All Blacks this year, then questions will surely be asked of whether he will remain after the next World cup, opening up the question of who would succeed him should he not re-sign.
Warren Gatland, whether he would admit it or not, must see next year’s Lions tour as a very good way to lay down his marker as a potential future All Blacks coach. He has the coaching pedigree, having achieved much success as an international coach. He has the passion for international rugby and no job would be greater than coaching your home nation. He also shares a similar track record to the current All Black coach and his predecessor as both Hansen and Sir Graham Henry before that are also both previous Wales coaches.
If Gatland ever wanted a greater opportunity to show that he should be the next All Blacks coach when Hansen eventually steps aside, then a Lions tour victory in New Zealand would certainly be one way to open All Blacks eyes.
Hamish Milner, Pundit Arena