Friday 23 August 2019

Race for Lions hotseat heats up as D-Day looms

Joe Schmidt talks to Rhys Ruddock during the Irish training session in Port Elizabeth yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Joe Schmidt talks to Rhys Ruddock during the Irish training session in Port Elizabeth yesterday. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

If you listen to the candidates, coaching the Lions appears to be the job nobody wants.

As he basked in the glow of a successful series win over Australia last weekend, Eddie Jones joined Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt in distancing himself from the job when he said he intends to make England his full focus for the next four years.

Before the Six Nations, Schmidt said he wouldn't be able to do it due to his contract, although the IRFU have since said that he would be accommodated, while the incumbent Gatland lamented the schedule as he considered whether to go on his third successive tour.


The decision on who will lead the Lions to New Zealand next summer will be made in the coming weeks as the selectors review the season in full.

According to the bookies, Gatland is still the strong favourite to go again with Schmidt next in line and Jones a distant third. Scotland's Vern Cotter is the other candidate.

Lions manager John Spencer laid out the selection process earlier this year.

"We have a totally open mind about the appointment," the former England centre said. "We look at the form of coaches just as the players are examined and a lot can happen between now and the summer. We could look outside (the four national teams) but I have not heard any proposal for that.

"There will be an announcement towards the end of the summer and there will be an interview process.

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"We would expect the head coach to give 100pc of his time to the Lions because that would make for the best preparation and would mean he would have to take a sabbatical.

"Eddie Jones has to be considered, although it would be unusual for a coach who had just been appointed to be considered by the Lions and I am not sure Ian Ritchie (RFU chief executive) would react very favourably if we asked for a 12-month sabbatical."

Schmidt has a gentleman's agreement with the IRFU that if he accepted the Lions' call, he'd remain with Ireland until 2019, while Gatland has been through all of this before.

So, how are the contenders shaping up ahead of the big decision?

1 Warren Gatland

Gatland is getting first-hand experience of how difficult it is to tour his home country after losing twice to the All Blacks and being tonked by the Chiefs of Waikato with Wales in the last few weeks.

An assistant on the 2009 tour, he led the Lions to victory over Australia four years later albeit finishing up a divisive figure due to his decision to drop Brian O'Driscoll for the deciding Test.

Yet he can legitimately argue that he was vindicated by the results and can point to a decent World Cup where his side coped with a long injury list to emerge from a difficult pool and came up just short against South Africa.

However, his record against the southern hemisphere teams with Wales leaves something to be desired, while he hasn't won a Six Nations title since he last coached the Lions.

A comfortable media operator who is well able for the focus that comes with the role, he is the incumbent and remains the most likely choice.

2 Joe Schmidt

Seen as one of the smartest coaches on the circuit, Schmidt's record since he arrived in Europe in 2007 is exemplary and his ability to get the best out of his players in all circumstances has to be respected.

Ireland's performances in South Africa have helped restore any lost faith after an under-par season and leading the Lions in New Zealand would be a good way to put himself in the shop window back home.

The former Leinster supremo has never experienced a Lions tour, however, and his demanding nature and discomfort in the media spotlight may work against him.

For a man who likes to control every last detail, the Lions looks unwieldy for Schmidt, although they may inquire as to his interest in working alongside Gatland. He may prefer to link up with his old comrade Cotter.

3 Eddie Jones

This week, Steve Hansen has chosen to engage himself in some analysis of Jones' media manipulation in Australia, which is a sure sign that the All Blacks coach sees the England coach as a threat.

Unbeaten in eight games since arriving on these shores, the former Wallaby coach has accomplished a lot in a short time - a key skill for a Lions coach - and would certainly be adept at getting under the New Zealanders' skin.

Rated 8/1, he is currently ruling himself out but his record is impossible to ignore.

If his side go on to complete a clean sweep in Australia this week, then the momentum behind him will be difficult to halt despite his protestations.

It wouldn't be the first time Jones had his head turned.

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