Moments after thanking New Zealand Rugby and chief executive Mark Robinson for releasing him early from his contract so he can return to Wales as head coach, Warren Gatland has sent a couple of bombshells in the organisation’s direction.
In a remarkably honest press conference at the Chiefs headquarters this morning, Gatland, dressed in his Chiefs polo shirt for probably the last time, said Scott Robertson was the obvious choice as the next All Blacks coach should NZR replace Ian Foster after the World Cup, and that Robinson and company should be having those conversations right now.
Robertson missed out to Foster after the 2019 World Cup when NZR decided to interview potential candidates after the tournament in Japan rather than before it as is customary everywhere else.
As a result, only Robertson and Foster applied after Dave Rennie signed with Australia and Jamie Joseph and Tony Brown decided to stick with Japan.
“Things have changed in world rugby,” Gatland said, clearly wanting to make a point that may ruffle a few feathers in Foster’s former workplace and beyond.
“I think in the past New Zealand would advertise for the All Blacks position and think that 30 coaches in the world would put their name forward and all of the sudden they realise ‘oh, we’ve only got two coaches putting their names forward’ which is what happened last time.
“That process should be starting now. You can’t wait until after the World Cup and think that people will come knocking at your door because that doesn’t happen in professional sport.
“That’s how other countries operate… they’re drawing up a list of a number of candidates they want to talk to… some of them are looking to make announcements early next year.”
Of Robertson, who began coaching the Crusaders in 2017 and has won a Super Rugby title every year since, Gatland said: “There’s one person in New Zealand at the moment who’s been incredibly successful, in terms of Razor, and he deserves an opportunity because of the success he’s had.
“There’s only one standout person and New Zealand [Rugby] should be doing everything they can to make sure they secure his services long term going forward.”
Asked what that might look like for a man about to coach the Crusaders for one last season, Gatland said: “By offering him a contract.”
“Look, you can’t deny his results, they stick out like a sore thumb. That’s the way that I look at it. He’s an obvious choice.”
Asked whether New Zealand Rugby should be making that choice right now, he said: “I’m here to talk about Wales, I don’t really want to talk about the All Blacks and stuff. I’ve made my point on that.”
It was a revealing 25-or-so minutes from Gatland, who offered up the Robertson nugget without being directly asked about his Crusaders rival. It came about after Gatland’s own All Blacks’ ambitions were gently probed and it’s clear that he wants to settle a couple of scores, and at least tell a few home truths, before he leaves.
Gatland, who will replace fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, sacked after an underwhelming November, will fly to the United Kingdom for four days next week for a round of media interviews before returning to New Zealand for Christmas.
He will start in the job early next year in preparation for the Six Nations and World Cup. It is a five-year contract with the usual performance imperatives. He said he has no idea who his assistants will be.
“For me it’s the excitement of Test match rugby and being involved in the Six Nations, it’s an unbelievable tournament to be involved in,” Gatland said.
“It’s incredibly tough to win – you’ve got to create a bit of momentum. The thing about the Six Nations is that it’s not just about the rugby, it’s the event.
“The other thing is, I’ve been involved in four World Cups and it’s another chance to be involved in a World Cup in France with a team I know well. I’m hoping the transition is going to be reasonably seamless.”
READ MORE: Scott Robertson: I want to coach two nations to World Cup glory
And yet, Gatland’s transition back to New Zealand in 2020 after 12 years with Wales wasn’t entirely seamless.
He was appointed as head coach of the Chiefs with a proviso that he could coach the British and Irish Lions the following year. But the awkward and not entirely unforeseen scenario of the Chiefs performing better under his temporary replacement Clayton McMillan occurred.
On his return, Gatland took over a director of rugby role.
“That was my decision,” Gatland said this morning. “I told [chief executive] Michael Collins, ‘I don’t have to come back, Clayton has done a good job and I didn’t want to upset that’.
“In fairness to Michael, he said ‘no, we want you back 100%. If you want to take that role on it’s yours’. I didn’t feel that was appropriate, I said I’d be a director of rugby… and be there to support Clayton.”
Asked about the All Blacks, who lost a home series to Ireland this year, were defeated by South Africa and Argentina and threw away a big lead at Twickenham to draw against England, he recalled a conversation he had with former Pumas player Felipe Contepomi after Argentina’s historic win in Christchurch.
“He made the comment that the All Blacks are usually six months ahead of everyone else… but now the All Blacks are the team playing a little bit of catch up against some of the Northern Hemisphere teams. I found that interesting.”
Gatland made no bones about his willingness to take the intellectual property learned during his three years in New Zealand back with him to Wales, saying: “[I’ll] apply the learnings and experience from here and apply it to the positive stuff they do in the Northern Hemisphere.”
What else? Oh, he was asked whether he had any talks with England, who may be about to sack their head coach Eddie Jones.
“I’m not talking about the RFU, I’m here to talk about the Chiefs and Wales. Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers,” Gatland replied.