With the first test of the Lions tour of New Zealand next year now just 15 months away, there has been a worrying lack of movement on the coaching front.
It may seem a little early to be worrying with the tour more than a year away, but given the enormity of the task facing the Lions in 2017, the more prepared the side can be, the better. It therefore stands to reason that with the 2016 Six Nations all but concluded, now is the time to name the coach for next year’s tour so they are given plenty of time to plan and prepare.
The problem however is that the options for who takes on the head coaching role are pretty limited. At present, it’s hard to look past Warren Gatland taking charge of his second tour. Whilst other names like Joe Schmidt, Vern Cotter and even Stuart Lancaster have been thrown into the ring, it is hard to look past the Welsh coach once again.
Before the 2016 Six Nations kicked off, Schmidt was certainly a fan favourite for the role, however it has been indicated that his IRFU contract states he will not be made available for the Lions job. Whilst a solution could potentially be found with Ireland receiving a compensation package, questions have now been raised over his suitability. Ignoring injuries, Ireland’s performances during the 2016 Six Nations have been pretty dismal, with Schmidt having opted for a cautious approach when many fans had hoped to see a little more ambition from their side.
Vern Cotter is another name who has been linked to the job, but again, it’s hard to see him being a viable option. Although the SRU may be more flexible in making Cotter available for the Lions, he is far from a safe bet. Whilst he has no doubt helped Scotland improve hugely since taking over, his side do somewhat lack the experience of winning big games on a regular basis. He is also still relatively new to international coaching and could be seen as a little green for the role of leading the Lions against the All Blacks.
Another name that has been touted has been former England coach Stuart Lancaster. The benefit here is obvious in that at present he does not have a coaching role, and could therefore dedicate his time fully to the Lions. He has also spent some time over in the southern hemisphere developing his coaching expertise. It’s pretty obvious however that appointing Lancaster would cause plenty of unrest amongst fans of the home nations after he oversaw one of England’s most dismal World Cup campaigns in recent memory.
Whilst Eddie Jones has been mentioned as a possibility, it is hard to see the RFU giving him leave to take up the Lions role just over a year into the England job. Another possible candidate would be Conor O’Shea who is set to leave Harlequins at the end of the season, although it is believed he will be taking up the Italy job this summer. Other contenders would include the likes of Jake White or Nick Mallett who have plenty of international coaching experience, although they are serious outside bets at this stage.
Given either the limited availability, or experience of the key contenders, it is therefore hard to look past Gatland taking up the reigns once again. Whilst his winning record on the Wallabies tour will definitely count in his favour, fans outside of Wales may have serious concerns over his ability to play with the kind of freedom many believe is necessary to overcome a side like the All Blacks. There may also be some criticism aimed at him from a selection point of view, give the view that his side was dominated by his own Welsh players.
Whatever the choice, the Lions management team need to act fast in order to give the new coaches the best possible chance of succeeding on the tour.