The sensitive selection of the coach for next year's Lions tour to South Africa will move a step closer over the next couple of weeks when the four home unions, or at least some of them, will submit their nominations. That should produce a very short list, but the name of the successful candidate may not be on it.
"If we want to, we can go outside the process of coaches being put forward by their countries," Gerald Davies, the Lions manager, explained. When the Lions won in New Zealand in 1971 (Davies was on the tour), the architect of a stunning victory was Carwyn James, and he never coached his country. Nor need it be somebody from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales. The world is their oyster, but against the world champions – they play three Tests, in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg, and seven other matches – they are determined to get it right.
The New Zealander Graham Henry, who had Martin Johnson as his captain, came up short in Australia in 2001 despite winning the First Test in tremendous style. Four years later, Sir Clive Woodward, with the preposterous Alastair Campbell as his head of communications, led an expensive, hopeless expedition to New Zealand. The Lions were whitewashed 3-0. One of the most evocative brand names in the game took a battering.
This time there is no viable English candidate. Brian Ashton has enough to be going on with and it is understood his name will not be put forward. At one point, Eddie O'Sullivan, who was one of Woodward's legion of assistants in New Zealand, was touted as a contender, but he is no longer the Ireland coach. Frank Hadden of Scotland? No chance, but there is another Scotsman who fits the bill.
Ian McGeechan master-minded the triumphs over the Wallabies in 1989 and the South Africans in 1997, so his track record makes him one of the most experienced and successful coaches in Lions history. He also ran the unbeaten midweek side in New Zealand last time.
Jake White, who guided the Springboks to the World Cup, could be up for a tilt at his homeland if only because his name is associated with almost every vacancy in the game. But a more serious rival to McGeechan has emerged, fresh from pulling off a Six Nations Grand Slam.
In February, Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, said Warren Gatland's involvement with the Lions was "not on the radar". Well, it is now. "If there's a chance of getting involved at some level it would be a huge honour," said Gatland. According to Davies, "Warren's priority and loyalty is to Wales and it's up to the WRU to put his name forward".
Davies might have to declare an interest. Aside from being the Lions manager, he is a national representative on the WRU and it was he, Lewis and the chairman, David Pickering, who flew to New Zealand to sign Gatland after Wales's exit from the World Cup. Gareth Jenkins, the then coach, had asked to be judged on results in France.
"We were made well aware during the World Cup that four or five other countries would be looking for a coach," Davies said, "so we had to act pretty quickly. It was also clear to us that Warren Gatland was the man we wanted. I'd made some inquiries about him in Ireland and London and heard nothing but very, very good reports.
"There was much mirth in Wales about why we had to rush halfway around the world, but the turnaround has been amazing. The players are the same but there's been a different kind of leadership. There has been a perfect spirit and a will to win. In the end Wales were the best team in the Six Nations."
From his former alliance at Wasps, Gatland brought Shaun Edwards on board. "His job description was defence coach and he couldn't have fulfilled it any better," Davies said. "The record of conceding only two tries will be hard to beat."
McGeechan, who succeeded Gatland at Wasps, says he has an "open mind" about the Lions job, but a triumvirate involving the Scotsman, the New Zealander and the Englishman could have a lot going for it.
Possible Lions XV
The British and Irish Lions tackle the Springboks in South Africa next year. If they were to play next week, based on form in the Six Nations, a starting XV could look like this:
15 Lee Byrne (Wales)
14 Shane Williams (Wales)
13 Brian O'Driscoll (Ireland)
12 Gavin Henson (Wales)
11 Mark Jones (Wales)
10 Danny Cipriani (England)
9 Mike Phillips (Wales)
1 Andrew Sheridan (England)
2 Ross Ford (Scotland)
3 Gethin Jenkins (Wales)
4 Paul O'Connell (Ireland)
5 Ian Gough (Wales)
6 Jason White (Scotland)
7 Ryan Jones (Wales, captain)
8 Martyn Williams (Wales)Reuse content