Wales keep Warren Gatland till 2019 but agree to release him if Lions come calling

Warren Gatland will be free to lead the 2017 Lions if asked

Warren Gatland has revealed he has a gentleman’s agreement with the Welsh Rugby Union to be released if asked to coach the British & Irish Lions in 2017.

Wales head coach Gatland signed a new six-year contract on Monday, committing himself to the WRU in the long term. The 50-year-old is already Wales’ longest-serving coach, but this deal will extend his tenure to 12 years, taking in the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups.

Former Ireland and Wasps coach Gatland said there was no clause written into his new contract that allows a sabbatical to coach the Lions. But the series-winning 2013 Lions coach said that the WRU chief executive Roger Lewis had pledged to do “everything he can” to help Gatland lead the best of British in his native New Zealand in 2017.

Gatland handed the Wales reins to Robert Howley for the 2012 season, as he prepared for the Lions’ 2013 tour to Australia and is expected to do the same in 2016 if asked to lead the Lions again.

“The contract this time is exactly the same as what I had last time,” Gatland said. “If I had the opportunity to be involved again, that’s going to be because of Wales being successful in the next couple of years. If my whole focus and contemplation is on Wales, then if Wales are successful you put yourself in the frame.

“Then after that it’s potentially maybe the Lions approaching you, then it’s negotiating release with the WRU. Roger’s said to me even though there’s not a release in my contract he will do everything he can to help support me, and to hopefully make it happen if I did get offered that position again. But it’s not something I’m contemplating at the moment. My whole focus is on Wales doing well.”

Gatland’s new deal is a rare positive development for Welsh rugby amid unrest from the four regional sides still agitating to create a breakaway Anglo-Welsh league, and the exodus of top stars.

The Lions hooker Richard Hibbard became the latest when he announced he will be leaving Ospreys for Gloucester next season, but Lewis believes retaining Gatland will boost Welsh rugby.

“By signing him for a further four years we have ensured that the systems will continue to develop for the future of the international game in Wales,” Lewis said.

“It is so important that we achieve continuity, which is why we have negotiated our international touring schedule right through until 2019. This began more than a year ago and has taken an incredible amount of hard work to get it right.”