Chiefs door closes for Cooper; opens for Warren Gatland

Chiefs door closes for Cooper; opens for Warren Gatland
WELLINGTON, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 01: Lions coach Warren Gatland during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium on July 1, 2017 in Wellington, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

In a move that has shocked and delighted some Kiwi rugby fans, the Chiefs Super Rugby door has closed for current head coach Colin Cooper; but it appeared to open immediately for incoming replacement, current Wales head coach Warren Gatland.

The former All Black and Waikato rugby player was announced as the incoming leader of the Chiefs team, in a move that was counter; but in fact balanced perfectly against the recent appointment of Gatland as 2021 British and Irish Lions head coach.

Still, delighting many Waikato and Chiefs supporters with the ‘quality’ of the selection. One that will see Gatland return to coach in New Zealand after 12 successful years offshore. Yet it shocked many watchers too, due to the immediacy of the announcement, less than 24 hours after Colin Cooper ended his term two years into a three-year contract.

What has surprised many after the sudden call by Cooper, was that it was followed near instantly, by a recruitment media statement. By far the biggest shock was the name listed as Warren Gatland; now contracted with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) on a four-year deal.

Chiefs door closes for Cooper; opens for Warren Gatland

When doors close on coaching roles, the accepted norm is that a role will be advertised and a recruitment hunt is planned for. Though in this case, it seems to be that talks with Warren Gatland were made prior to Colin Cooper’s announcement – leading to theories and shock for some.

The official statement from Chiefs management is, ‘Gatland will return to New Zealand after he has completed his RWC2019 duties with Wales to begin his new role as Gallagher Chiefs head coach for the 2020 Investec Super Rugby season.’

It goes on to say ‘His four-year deal to 2023 will include a break to coach the British & Irish Lions in 2021’. That caveat is the most critical element for many, after the call in May to have Gatland serve a third term as the British and Irish Lions coach.

It will now mean, for the first time ever, a serving Super Rugby coach will lead the Lions tour party!

That is surprising and shows that the negotiations to have Gatland assume the role for a short period first, before being allowed a ‘sabbatical year’ away to coach the Lions.

Colin Cooper, while an assured coach who brought the Chiefs back from a disastrous early season run, has made way for the longer term good of the Chiefs. By his own measure, or by the will of others.

Post RWC Wales role, Gatland is excited by Chiefs challenge

“I am really excited about the opportunity to come back home”, Gatland said in a media release from NZR. “The opportunity to come back as head coach of the Gallagher Chiefs is something that I am really looking forward to. The Chiefs are well known for the success they’ve had both on and off the field and the really loyal support they have from everyone within the Chiefs region.

“I am excited to come back and be a part of the Chiefs community with the players, the fans, the sponsors, it’s something I really look forward to”. And the public reaction, after disbelief at how suddenly his name was officially linked to the vacant role, is positive.

NZR has a strict policy that inhibits any prospective coach of a representative team from being outside the system. You must be coaching in New Zealand. That has hindered men like Warren Gatland applying for any coaching roles before. Now, that impediment is removed.

Gatland can prospectively, apply for NZR coaching roles [after the 2021 Lions tour]  ranging from the Under 21, NZ Barbarians, Maori or – like so many have desired – the All Blacks.

A suspected timeline could be:
  • 2020 – Head coach Chiefs Super Rugby

  • 2021 – Head coach British and Irish Lions/advisory role to Chiefs

  • 2022/23 – full-time Chiefs head coach, and possible NZR appointed roles

It appears that the stars have aligned. That NZR has finally made good judgment that having Gatland involved; even if that means placating to his term with an opposing International side. The Lions might not be competing for World Rugby rankings, but they are for many, the idea of a rugbyunited fellowship. One that modern rugby is too easily moving away from.

Next year, Warren Gatland might soon be discussing Super Rugby players and his teams’ prospects in the 2020 season. But for now, his red tie and Welsh paymaster will direct his attention until November. And then after the 2019 Rugby World Cup finishes, it will be ‘back to the future’ for Gatland and fans in Waikato.


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