Friday 18 October 2019

Warren Gatland set to lead Lions to South Africa in 2021 - and door remains open to succeed Eddie Jones in England

Wales coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire
Wales coach Warren Gatland. Photo: David Davies/PA Wire

Gavin Mairs

Warren Gatland is to be reappointed as head coach of the British and Irish Lions for the tour of South Africa in 2021 - but the move will not rule him out of taking over the England job from Eddie Jones.

The Lions board agreed at a meeting two weeks ago that the 55-year-old, who guided Wales to the Six Nations Grand Slam in March, was its "outstanding candidate" and hopes to agree terms with the New Zealander within a month.

Negotiations are expected to be straightforward. Gatland, who returned to the UK this week from New Zealand, is regarded as one of the most in-demand coaches on the world stage, but it's understood he is equally keen to do the Lions job for a third time, having first been head coach on the 2013 tour of Australia.

Despite his frustrations at his treatment by some sections of the New Zealand media during the 2017 tour, Gatland is known to love the Lions concept. Also, having been part of the management team on the tour of South Africa in 2009, when the series was lost 2-1, there is likely to be a sense of unfinished business.

The exact details have yet to be thrashed out, but it is expected Gatland would be in position for the start of the 2020 season after taking a six-month break following the World Cup. It is understood he has the backing of the Welsh Rugby Union to accept the position but the WRU is keen for the negotiations to be concluded before Wales meet up for their first World Cup training session late next month.

New Lions chairman Jason Leonard is expected to lead the negotiations, which are expected to begin within days.

A senior Lions source said: "Warren is our number one choice. He understands the Lions and the unique challenges of touring. He has already proven his ability to put together a successful touring squad, not just in picking form players but also the right kind of personalities and characters that make the Lions so special. It is important that we get the deal done as quickly as possible to allow him to concentrate fully on Wales's World Cup preparations."

Gatland's decision to accept the Lions post will also not necessarily rule him out of contention to succeed Jones as the next England head coach if the RFU decides to go for him.

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It was previously revealed, in February, that Gatland was the front-runner, before he went on to win a record third Grand Slam, increasing calls from former England players and supporters for the RFU to recruit him.

It admitted in March that it had delayed appointing a successor to Jones, who has a contract until 2021 but may step down after the World Cup in Japan depending on results.

The RFU has been at pains to express that Jones is contracted to 2021 and is also considering a mentoring role during that period - meaning Gatland could be available before the Australian has even left his position.

Nigel Melville, the RFU's interim chief executive, has yet to confirm whether Gatland is on the shortlist but it is thought his decision to accept the Lions job will not affect the decision.

The Lions refused to deny they were about to open negotiations with Gatland.


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