Warren Gatland, the shortest-priced favourite to coach the British and Irish Lions in recent history, is in the final stage of discussions over a 10-month deal that will allow him to devote all his energies to plotting victory over the Wallabies in Australia next summer. The New Zealander already has a long-term contract with Wales running through to the 2015 World Cup and, given the choice, the reigning European champions would not lose their strategist-in-chief for an entire international season. There are, however, clear signs that an agreement has been reached.
Little has been seen of Gatland since he fractured both heels in a Frank Spencer-type domestic accident earlier this year: he fell off a ladder while performing DIY chores at his holiday home on the Waikato coast. But he was quoted in Australia yesterday as saying that he was "very close" to putting pen to paper with the Lions, who it is thought will release him back to Wales for half their autumn international programme. Confirmation is expected early next month.
Heineken Cup administrators have reacted sharply to the latest aggressive noises from the elite English clubs, who, along with the French, want to reshape a tournament structure they believe favours the strongest teams from the four-nation Pro12 competition – most notably the Irish, who have dominated in recent years.
Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby and principal spokesman for the English clubs, said yesterday that little progress had been made on a new format and repeated a warning that an alternative Anglo-French competition might be on the cards. In response, the Heineken Cup organisers declared themselves "dismayed and frustrated".