Unless they finish bottom of next year’s southern hemisphere Rugby Championship and then bomb out in the pool stage at the World Cup – not terribly likely, on current evidence – Steve Hansen will still be head coach of the All Blacks when the British and Irish Lions make landfall in 2017 for their ninth post-war tour of the country.
Hansen broke new ground yesterday by signing a three-year contract extension that reinforces his position at the helm of the most accomplished team in international sport.
In recent times, the New Zealand hierarchy have treated the World Cup as a natural watershed – an opportunity to change tack on the coaching front or, at the very least, force incumbents to reapply for their positions. By securing Hansen’s services beyond the 2015 global gathering in England, they have effectively said to the Lions: “This is where we stand. What do you propose to do about it?”
The likelihood at this stage is that the Lions will respond by picking a New Zealander of their own, yet the identity of that New Zealander is nowhere near as obvious as it was this time last year.
After the 2013 series victory in Australia there was a widespread assumption that Warren Gatland, the tough-nut hooker from Waikato who drove Wales to Grand Slam triumphs in 2008 and 2012, would agree to stay in the coaching role and head up the trip to his homeland in an effort to set a crown on his career. That was then.
Now that Ireland are mining such a rich vein of form under Joe Schmidt and Scotland are showing clear signs of improvement under Vern Cotter, two more Kiwis are putting up their hands for consideration.
In the absence of a realistic candidate from outside the current Test arena – there is no free agent of the stature of Sir Clive Woodward, who was in the happy position of not being weighed down by a day job when he coached the Lions the last time they travelled to the Land of the Long White Cloud in 2005 – the only home-grown contender is Stuart Lancaster of England. Like Hansen, the Cumbrian is on a long-term contract with his governing body, but the Rugby Football Union has already indicated that it would not stand in his way if he was summoned on Lions business.
According to John Feehan, the Lions’ chief executive, no decision on an appointment is likely before May 2016. “Clearly, we need to take account of what happens in the World Cup next year,” he said yesterday. “But it’s our view that we should also look hard at what happens in the following Six Nations before speaking seriously to the candidates. We’ll certainly want our choice to be free to concentrate on selection from the start of 2017 and it may be that we’ll prefer him to have a clear diary through the autumn of 2016 too, although that will be up for discussion.”
While Gatland remains the early favourite in many quarters, the highly regarded Schmidt, who hails from the Manawatu region of New Zealand’s North Island, will certainly set tongues wagging if he enjoys a successful 2015 campaign. Which is something more than a remote possibility. Ireland came out of the recent autumn series well ahead of the game after victories over South Africa and Australia, and with home advantage over both England and France in the forthcoming Six Nations, they have a decent chance of retaining that title. As for the World Cup, they are in the softest of the four groups – as opposed to England and Wales, who are in the hardest – and could well be semi-finalists.
Back in All Black country, Hansen was delighted. “I am honoured by the faith and confidence shown in me by the board,” he said. “I asked myself if I had the hunger and desire to continue, which I do, so the decision was a no-brainer.”