IRFU give Joe Schmidt Lions green light ahead of 2017 All Blacks tour
The IRFU have confirmed that they will not stand in the way of Joe Schmidt coaching the Lions next year, if he is offered the job.
Along with Wales supremo Warren Gatland, Schmidt is the front-runner to lead the Lions in New Zealand but the Ireland coach had seemingly ruled himself out of contention last January, citing contractual constraints.
However, in an interview with a Sunday newspaper, the IRFU's performance director David Nucifora revealed that the union would support Schmidt if he is offered the job when the Lions committee reconvene in the Autumn.
Schmidt's contract with the IRFU is due to expire in June next year and whether or not he extends it until the 2019 World Cup will largely depend on family reasons.
"If Joe was offered the role that he wanted to do it, that would be great. And we'd cope," Nucifora said.
Given that the Lions expect the role to be a 12-month gig, Schmidt may be forced to step back from his role as Ireland coach for this November's Test series as well as next year's Six Nations.
But if Schmidt was offered the job, he may well point to the last Lions tour in 2013 when Gatland seemed to still have a major say in Wales matters in 2012-13, despite Rob Howley being named as their interim head coach, as Nucifora pointed out.
"Hopefully his (Schmidt) time away from the team isn't too long but if it had to be, and he wanted to do it, we'd certainly be supportive," Nucifora said.
"Gatland was still coaching (Wales), wasn't he? He was still sitting next to Howley in the coaches' box anyway."
Ireland will play New Zealand twice in November and the opportunity to mastermind a first ever defeat of his home country is something that will undoubtedly make it difficult for Schmidt to take a step back.
"The terms of my current contract don't allow me to do the Lions, so it's actually a moot point," Schmidt said last January.
"It doesn't distract me because it isn't actually something I can do unless the terms of my contract change."
It would appear now that the stipulation has indeed changed as Nucifora handed him the union's seal of approval.
The Lions committee is due to confirm next year's coach after this summer's tours. Wales will play the All Blacks in a three-Test series, which will hand Gatland an ideal opportunity to stake his claim ahead of a similar series with the Lions in New Zealand in 2017.
Ireland play the Springboks three times next month as they look for their first victory in South Africa.