Warren Gatland was last weekend appointed to the Chiefs role on a four year contract, one that will see him take a year out in 2021 to coach the Lions’ tour to South Africa. The Chiefs, who have not triumphed in Super Rugby since their back to back wins in 2012-13, are unsurprisingly delighted with this appointment. As Chris Lendrum recognises, New Zealand’s head of professional rugby, the signing constitutes a “coup for the Chiefs, for Super Rugby and for the game in New Zealand generally.”
This is a sentiment that has been echoed by senior players, and All Blacks, Sam Cane and Anton Liernert-Brown. According to Cane, “he’s known as one of the world’s best coaches, and it’s cool how he was born and bred in the Waikato [making 140 appearances for the club], so he’s coming home,” whilst Liernert-Brown also expressed his agreement, “I’m very excited he’s on board.”
With the caveat of a year out to coach the Lions, this is indeed a hugely promising move for the Chiefs, one which they will hope can lead to them challenging the current dominance of the Crusaders and Hurricanes. However, for Gatland the announcement has inevitably been followed by speculation that this will lead to bigger and better things in southern hemisphere rugby, namely the All Blacks job. This is, of course, far from a given, but it has been made ever more likely by this particular move.
In the words of 2011 World Cup winning All Blacks coach Graham Henry, “it is highly probable. He has proved to be one of the best coaches in the world.” Moreover, in granting Gatland the opportunity to miss the 2021 season, New Zealand Rugby have demonstrated the strength of their desire to have him on board, and integrate him into the New Zealand set up, a decision that surely forms part of a plan extending beyond the four year contract he has signed with the Chiefs. Assuming all goes well in that period, you would be unwise to bet against him assuming the All Blacks role in the near future, where he may of course have to contend with current Irish coach Joe Schmidt as a rival candidate.
Should Gatland succeed in taking the role, he would be following a well-trodden path of New Zealanders gaining international experience in Europe, before returning home to pursue their ambitions with the All Blacks. In fact, both Graham Henry and Steve Hansen, winners of the last two World Cups, had been Wales head coaches prior to joining the All Blacks set up.
Ultimately, Gatland’s prospective tenure as All Blacks head coach is contingent on success in the coming years with the Chiefs. Furthermore, although you can be sure the idea of the coaching the All Blacks has crossed his mind, he is sure to remain undistracted from his pursuit of Super Rugby glory with his local side. Gatland coached Waikato between 2005 and 2007, admitting after the appointment, “I am really excited about the opportunity to come back home.” Another chapter awaits in the career of Warren Gatland then, with all roads leading home, and possibly all the way to the All Blacks job.
Written by Joe Ronan