After two successful tours, triumphing in Australia and gaining a very respectable series draw in New Zealand, curtains have drawn on Warren Gatland’s love affair with the British and Irish Lions.
Kiwi-born Gatland returned from New Zealand in the summer having earned a draw in the fiercest test of all, the All Blacks in their own back yard, yet he didn’t return to a clamour of praise.
As he headed to his country of birth Gatland was pilloried by local journalists – the lack of respect probably coming from the fact his success has all been in the northern hemisphere – but then dissent has come more recently from the Home Nations.
Sean O’Brien offered a scathing assessment of Gatland and his regime, claiming the tour to New Zealand should have been victorious.
As much of a stoic figure Gatland is, it is clear he is no longer will to fight against the mockery and is willing to rest knowing he has successful honours list to his name.
So who are the potential successors?
Eddie Jones – England
With an England contract in place until the end of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, 2021 may not be the ideal time, but should the tactician keep England on the same trajectory he will remain the surefire favourite to succeed Gatland. By 2021 Australian maverick Jones will have an extensive understanding of British and Irish rugby and when you blend that with his wealth of coaching expertise he is the outstanding candidate for the most coveted post in northern hemisphere rugby.
Mark McCall – Saracens
There is nothing Mark McCall has not achieved in domestic rugby with Saracens. Beyond a wealth of on field success, Aviva Premiership crowns, back-to-back European Champions Cups, McCall has developed a remarkable culture of triumph and constant gains. At the heartbeat of McCall’s philosophy is advancement, learning and always discovering the next step and has broken new ground for English and European rugby with his success at Saracens. Despite the Ulsterman’s lack of international success, his links with Paul Gustard and Steve Borthwick means he has formidable pedigree in his close contacts book. An outsider, but worth serious consideration.
Joe Schmidt – Ireland
Like Jones, Joe Schmidt is a widely-revered and respected tactician throughout the rugby world – and likewise has no future plans mapped out beyond Japan 2019, when his contract with the Emerald Isle expires. Another New Zealand-born coach, Schmidt may be enticed back to his homeland to seek posts in the All Blacks set up, but should he remain available for the Lions selection, then he must be marked out as a primary contender to take the honours.
Rob Baxter – Exeter Chiefs
This is no knee-jerk suggestion following Exeter Chiefs’ 2016/17 Premiership crown, the continual rise of the Devon-based club under Rob Baxter has shown his tactical prowess and shrewd eye for the game. From the second tier, through to Premiership survival and now reigning champions of England fighting on the European frontier, Baxter has been the architect of an astonishing story of success and should well be thrown into mix – albeit he is most favoured to succeed Jones in the England post and this Lions tour in 2021 may come a touch too soon.
Gregor Townsend – Scotland
Possibly the least experienced coach on this shortlist, Gregor Townsend is a young coach who boasts much promise and a strong Lions pedigree himself having helped as a player topple the Springboks in 1997. It was widely reported Gatland wanted Townsend included in the coaching staff for the New Zealand tour this year, but the 44-year-old rejected the offer in order to focus on his new role at the helm of Scottish rugby. Could a big Six Nations campaign push his case for the post?
Dai Young – Wasps
While Wasps fortunes have suffered this season this far, fair to say among a glut of injuries to key figures, Dai Young has long been regarded as one of the leading coaches in English rugby. A lack of major silverware with Wasps and failing to rise to the top of the domestic tree may work against the Welshman, who is probably more likely to gain a post with Wales when Gatland steps down after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.