All Blacks coach Steve Hansen’s decision to stay on with the team until after the 2019 World Cup in Japan has now thrown up another question in the rugby-mad country. Who is going to replace him?
New Zealand Rugby said on Monday that Hansen, whose existing contract expired at the end of next year, had re-signed with the organisation until after the 2019 World Cup, the first to be held in Asia.
"At the end of the day he's the best coach in world rugby," NZR Chief Executive Steve Tew told reporters in Wellington. "It was one of the easiest recommendations to the board."
The decision has also made NZR’s long-term planning much easier, with Hansen’s replacement no longer needing to be appointed less than two years out from their defence of the Webb Ellis trophy.
The announcement doesn't change the landscape much for Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt - who has yet to make a decision whether to extend his time as Ireland coach to 2019 or take up a position in New Zealand next year.
The Kiwi native was unlikely to be in the immediate reckoning for the All Blacks job, even if Hansen had not stayed on. Jumping from the Irish job to the New Zealand hotseat, never really being on the cards.
His options remain, Super Rugby franchises the Highlanders and the Chiefs who have both expressed a keen interest to acquire his services - or Ireland.
And if he chooses to take the Super Rugby option, after a couple of seasons he could then use that platform to be in the reckoning for the national job when it becomes available in three years’ time.
Planning has been important for the All Blacks’ success in recent years after independent reviews found the loss of institutional knowledge and inconsistency in coaches’ tenures had hampered previous World Cup campaigns.
That was not lost on Tew, who said Hansen’s decision would also go some way to influencing players’ thinking ahead of the 2019 World Cup. So far only seven players have signed contracts with the organisation until then.
“The reality is that we have the opportunity through until 2020 to do a really good job on some succession planning,” Tew said. “You just have to see what’s going on in Super Rugby and with other New Zealand coaches around the world.
“We have kept the guys we consider worthy of being on the list fully informed. We spend a lot of time talking to coaches here and overseas.”
‘Never say never’
Several other names have been mentioned as potential successors to Hansen, with current All Blacks assistant Ian Foster a possibility, along with twice Super Rugby winning coach Dave Rennie.
Rennie, whose contract with the Waikato Chiefs expires at the end of next year, has already said his preference would be to head overseas before possibly having a tilt at the national job.
Former All Blacks hooker Warren Gatland, whose contract with Wales expires at the end of 2019, has also been suggested, along with Vern Cotter (Scotland) and Schmidt (Ireland), who could potentially work together having previously coached Bay of Plenty in New Zealand and at Clermont in France.
“We haven’t chosen the next All Blacks coach,” Tew said.
“At any dinner party in New Zealand you’d probably find that conversation taking place and there’d be as many opinions as there are people at the table.
“I think probably the best option will be whoever takes over in 2020 is at the World Cup in 2019, in one capacity or another.
“But we’ll work through that with the board, and Steve will have an input into that, in terms of how we plan for it.”
Hansen said it was likely he would not be in that conversation at the end of 2019, but could not rule out another run at the job if the All Blacks are successful.
“You never say never,” he said with a laugh, adding that he would not be emulating New Zealand athletics coach Arch Jelley, who turns 94 next month.
“I won’t be coaching at 94, I can promise you that.
“It’s not worth me thinking about that. I’m comfortable with the contract and know that after the World Cup there will be decisions to be made.”