Joe Schmidt would have to quit Ireland to lead Lions in New Zealand
Lions chief John Feehan says the race to coach the Lions in New Zealand in 2017 is down to two or three front-runners but warned that the chosen man could not play any role in that year's Six Nations.
Ireland supremo Joe Schmidt is the bookies' favourite to land the job of leading the tourists to his home country in two years' time, but he recently signed a contract extension with the IRFU that runs until June 2017.
Schmidt is likely to face competition from incumbent Warren Gatland and England's Stuart Lancaster, but a strong World Cup performance to back up the two Six Nations titles he has delivered during his time in charge would put him in the driving seat.
Gatland took a sabbatical from his role as Wales head coach before leading the Lions to Australia in 2013, acting as an advisor to stand-in Rob Howley during the November internationals before stepping back altogether during the Six Nations.
Feehan expects to name a coach in less than a year's time, with the rest of the management team in place by December 2016.
And preferably he would like the next coach to take a step back from his current role for the full season before the tour.
"The coach will be appointed hopefully some time next summer with a view to him being free for a year," he said.
"It may or not be the case where a union or an employer, whichever the case may be, wish to have him for a slightly longer period and it may not be a full year but it would have to certainly be this side of Christmas, with the appointment happening some time in summer next year.
"He will then look at the rest of the coaching appointments to be made around December and it would all be worked out.
"Absolutely, he wouldn't be involved in the Six Nations beforehand, the issue would be whether he would be involved in the autumn internationals.
"We won't significantly look at this until after the World Cup and probably after next year's Six Nations because you want coaches who are firing on all cylinders at the appropriate time," added Feehan.
"It's still two years to go to the tour, it's not really the appropriate time yet. But a little less than a year's time, you want to know.
"There will be two or three obvious candidates at that stage and then it is a reasonably quick process.
"What you want is that all of these guys put their hands up."
Feehan was speaking at the launch of this season's Guinness Pro12, which also comes under his remit.
The chief executive believes the league has made big strides in the last 12 months, with the arrival of European qualification based on finishing positions and the involvement of Sky Sports helping grow the profile of the sometimes maligned competition.
And he believes the competition can stand on its own two feet when put alongside the big-spending clubs from rival leagues in England and France.
"I don't think that the buying power of the English league is significantly higher than in our league, I think the biggest clubs in our league are paying very similar levels to anybody in the Aviva Premiership," he said.
"People talk about the French league, but it's not actually the French league - actually two or three teams at the top of the French league.
"In real terms, we can compete with any of them financially or otherwise. Clearly if an owner of one of the very top sides in France decided money is no object, then what can you do about that?
"In terms of how we can be looked at commercially, to give you an idea there were more eyeballs on our final throughout Britain and Ireland than watched the Premiership final.
"I'm happy that we can compete and will compete. We're comfortable in what we've got, we have huge potential for growth."