Why Warren Gatland will not be the next All Blacks coach
You could be forgiven for thinking there was no winner in the British & Irish Lions’ recent showdown with New Zealand given that the enthralling Test series was drawn – but you would be wrong.
Lions head coach Warren Gatland emerged as a real winner with his side having defied the significant odds stacked against them to not only rock the all-conquering All Blacks but go agonisingly close to conjuring one of the greatest sporting shocks of all time.
The Kiwi coach inspired a fearsome display from a hastily put together squad that was bruised and battered from a long and arduous northern hemisphere season and one that was also desperately short of preparation time.
Gatland also underlined his tactical prowess by identifying and leveraging New Zealand’s perceived weaknesses and by also fixing his own side’s shortcomings that were highlighted by the world champions in their first Test victory.
He also endured a rough ride from certain aspects of the New Zealand media with the New Zealand Herald opting to print a cartoon of Gatland dressed as a clown in answer to his claims of possible foul play.
Gatland himself believed this was part of a campaign intent on tarnishing his reputation but if anything it ended up doing the opposite with the Lions coach perfectly illustrating his ability to roll with the punches by donning a clown’s nose for the press conference that followed the third Test draw in Auckland.
There was the odd miss-step with his decision to bolster his squad mid-tour with members of his Wales squad due to their proximity rather than their ability – or more accurately his failure to predict the media furore that followed what was a rare low point.
His admission that the media reaction influenced his decision to not use them extensively hints at a malleable quality not normally associated with an All Blacks coach.
That blip aside, it appears to have been a near-perfect audition for the challenges and perplexities of the All Blacks job.
Add in the facts that current New Zealand head coach Steve Hansen is highly unlikely to continue beyond the 2019 Rugby World Cup and that Gatland is set to part company with Wales at the same time, it would appear that the New Zealand Rugby Union are not going require the services of a corporate headhunter to locate a successor.
But it is not that simple.
Gatland may well be one of the most successful coaches in the game with his heroics in New Zealand set to sit alongside the Lions’ series victory over Australia in 2013, Wales’ Grand Slam successes, a Heineken Cup victory and multiple English Premiership titles on an enviable CV.
But crucially he is not plying his trade in New Zealand and nor will he be when the post becomes vacant, making his appointment just as likely as the All Blacks selectors picking a player currently based overseas.
That is something that they just do not do as part of their efforts to maintain the strength of the New Zealand playing pool and the game in the country as a whole – and that belief and philosophy extends to the coaching talent.
Make no mistake, current All Blacks assistant coach, and former Chiefs boss, Ian Foster is the front runner to be Hansen’s successor with fellow assistant Wayne Smith set to bring the curtain down on a coaching career that already includes a spell in the top job.
Chief executive Steve Tew may have publicly accepted that Gatland is a contender for the post, along with other proven coaches working in Europe like Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, Montpellier coach Vern Cotter and Glasgow Warriors coach Dave Rennie – but even they know that the chances of them making such a career move are remote unless they return to New Zealand in advance of any such promotion.
The NZRU are well aware they cannot compete with the riches on offer in Europe and Japan and so making selection for the All Blacks – as either player or coach – conditional on being in New Zealand they have their own powerful bargaining chip.
Although not official policy when it comes to the All Blacks coach, unlike selection for the team itself, any left-field appointment would be a snub to those coaches who have faithfully followed that career path in the hope of taking on the ultimate job and it would also lead to an already extensive coaching talent drain turning into a flood.
Such a change in policy would also jeopardise the strength and reputation of New Zealand rugby in general and also impact on the power and influence of the All Blacks brand that in turn fuels the entire game in the country both economically and socially.
Any variation from the pattern of the professional era would suggest an admission of failure of the system to nurture and provide a suitable candidate and invite not only questions about the effectiveness of the coaching production line but also of those managing it.
The results would be a worrying erosion of their reputation and revenues.
It would take a brave man, and arguably a stupid one, to do so with New Zealand still by far the dominant force in international rugby and also the home of three out of four of this year’s Super Rugby semi-finalists.
History offers a further pointer to any coach aspiring to take charge of the All Blacks.
When Sir Graham Henry parted company with Wales in 2002 he returned to New Zealand and specifically to the Blues, where he previously served as head coach before heading north.
Henry took what some might have seen as a step down the coaching ladder to become the Blues’ defensive coach under head coach Peter Sloane. But the Blues would go on to claim the 2003 Super Rugby title, thanks to a final victory over the Crusaders, and that success would pave the way for his next move.
Henry successfully applied for the All Blacks job later that same year, edging out incumbent John Mitchell who had stepped up from the Chiefs in 2001. His predecessor in the All Blacks hot seat, Wayne Smith, made the move from another Super Rugby outfit – the Crusaders.
One thing perhaps going in Gatland’s favour is that he, just like Smith, Mitchell, Henry and Hansen, has coached in the northern hemisphere – something that likely rival Foster is yet to do.
I have little doubt that Gatland would be a successful All Blacks coach but if he is to fulfil what surely is for him a dream, he will have to return to his roots and given his credentials he will be assured of a warm reception – even from the media.