By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Newly-announced British and Irish Lions boss Warren Gatland has ruled himself out of taking over from Eddie Jones as England coach, saying on Wednesday he sees his long-term future in Super Rugby in New Zealand.
Gatland has a couple of more immediate tasks to keep him busy – leading Wales into this year’s Rugby World Cup then taking charge of the Lions in South Africa in 2021 – but his name has routinely been linked with the Twickenham job.
Jones is contracted until 2021 with the original plan that he would mentor his successor for two years but it seems increasingly likely that the Australian will depart after this year’s World Cup.
Gatland will step down from the Wales job after 12 years in November but, after being announced as the Lions coach for the third successive time on Wednesday, he said: “I can tell you definitively now I will not be coaching England, there is no way.
“I think my coaching path is going to take different directions. My whole focus is with Wales and the World Cup. The focus is then on the Lions and then my plan then is to go back to New Zealand and hopefully if there is an opportunity for some Super Rugby – that’s where I see my pathway at the moment.”
Some might suggest any of Gatland’s career projections should be taken with a large pinch of salt after he famously announced: “I’m done, let someone else have a go,” after the last Lions tour, but he took time on Wednesday to “put that comment into perspective”.
“The thing I struggled with was that there was an element of the NZ media,” he said. “I have no doubt that was an orchestrated campaign from the start to try to unsettle me. That took me by surprise. I had this romantic view of an ex-All Black and Kiwi coming home, leading the Lions and we would let the rugby do the talking and it would be a celebration of rugby. That wasn’t the case and that really threw me and it definitely took the gloss off that aspect of the tour.
“But the Lions as a whole, when I thought about it: the hospitality in New Zealand was amazing, the atmosphere at the games and the fans were incredible. And then there was so much positivity from the NZ public. The number of people afterwards, Kiwis, who contacted me to say they were disappointed by that element… that was really heartening.”
Gatland said he felt the whole concept of the Lions was under threat when he was an assistant to Ian McGeechan on the 2009 tour of South Africa. The host nation withheld all their test players from the warm-up games, ticket sales were poor locally and the Lions then lost the first two Tests against a side who seemed more interested in the Tri-Nations series to follow.
He said that made the third test, which the tourists won, incredibly important and the Lions then went to Australia and won the series before drawing with the All Blacks.
“I love the Lions and think they are in an incredibly healthy state now,” he said. “Everyone is fighting for their own corner and you are trying to keep all the stakeholders happy. The challenges, ironically, aren’t with the southern hemisphere. The challenges are with the northern hemisphere.
“But there is no doubt from the people I have spoken to just how excited New Zealand were in 2017 and South Africa are already talking about 2021.
“Part of it being successful is having competitive tours and being successful from a rugby aspect. That is why I keep fighting hard for the time to prepare and making sure we get a right number of games.
“So there is no doubt we have to find a place for the Lions, it’s too important to let go. We have to protect it and make it successful.”
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)