Andy Farrell will lead the Lions to Australia, leaving the IRFU with a tough choice
Even before Warren Gatland went to pass the baton, a decision had already been reached.
Andy Farrell is lined up to coach the British & Irish Lions on their 2025 tour to Australia. It is just a matter of when the official announcement will be made.
The Ireland head coach was earmarked for the job in early 2022 and nothing the senior Lions brains-trust have seen since has altered that view. Last September, IRFU performance director David Nucifora spoke of Farrell having his contract extended until August 2025.
"We've done it in such a way to have another couple of years of continuity," he said. "It does tie in with a Lions year and we'd be ecstatic if Andy was the Lions coach, we think that that would be fantastic. If he gets offered that job and chooses to take it, we'd be fully supportive of him because for us that's part of the growth of the game here.
"So, there are things that would be assessed along the way. We feel that we've got a world class head coach, a really good coaching ticket that supports him and we'll be working to try and secure them for as long as we can."
Last week, Warren Gatland had a piece in The Telegraph saying the WRU asked if he wanted to throw his name in the hat for another stint as Lions coach. In reality, the decision has already been reached - Andy Farrell is the man the Lions want.
No official announcement should be forthcoming until 2024 and the only caveat for Farrell and the Lions is how Ireland fare in the next Six Nations. Finish in the half of the standings, which they should, and it is a done deal. Should Ireland struggle - they are away to France and England - and the idea of the head coach taking time away to focus on the Lions may not be as palatable as it is right now.
Gauging the current lay of the land, though, Farrell will get the top job [he was Lions assistant coach in 2013 and 2017] and another two-year extension with the IRFU will come on its' heels, taking the former England international up to the 2027 World Cup.
For the 2013, 2017 and 2021 tours, to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, Warren Gatland took respective sabbaticals from Wales and the Chiefs. 2020 and 2021 were blighted by the Covid pandemic but preparations for the 2013 and 2017 are likely to be what the Lions press for, ahead of the 2025 tour Down Under. In those circumstances, Rob Howley took over as interim Wales head coach - for November internationals, Six Nations and summer tours - while Gatland was on Lions duty.
Expect a similar arrangement when the Farrell news is announced, leaving the IRFU with a tough choice to make. With that challenge, though, comes an opportunity and a potential carrot to wave at an incoming coach.
Who steps in during Andy Farrell sabbatical?
Taking it that Andy Farrell will be the Lions head coach for the 2025 Lions Tour to Australia, the IRFU decision is who becomes Ireland interim head coach while he is away?
We may get a clue before the year is out. We are going to see another Emerging Ireland tour, but a little shorter than the jaunt to South Africa in 2022. The union is planning to select a squad of emerging prospects to travel to Italy for a two-match stint. Simon Easterby was head coach for that tour, and should reprise his role.
Farrell, as he did for that tour to South Africa, where Ireland played the Griquas, Pumas and Cheetahs, will take a step back from the day-to-day coaching tasks. Should Easterby get the nod again, he should be in pole position to step in for Farrell during any Lions sabbatical. Paul O'Connell may be in the frame, but he seems to prefer the behind-the-scenes coaching duties, with the occasional media appearance when his name comes up on the rota.
The one interesting aspect to consider is Ireland attack coach. Mike Catt is reportedly set to vacate that position after the 2024 Six Nations. Johnny Sexton has been linked with the role but we could see the provinces dipped into for that, with Jared Payne (now at Scarlets) another option.
How about Ronan O'Gara, though?
O'Gara is busy making a Champions Cup dynasty side out of La Rochelle and, late last year, signed an extension with the French club until 2027. On Off The Ball, recently, he said a year-long sabbatical would rule him out of going for the top Lions job [Again, Andy Farrell is the top choice] but he did offer himself up as a potential assistant coach. He stated:
"If there was a potential opening, I am sure the bosses here, depending on my willingness to show interest in it, would be very open to trying to see me in my best version. My best version might be coaching with Andy Farrell with the Lions. That would be extremely exciting I think. I don’t think reasonable people would put a stop to that."
One wonders if the IRFU might be able to succession plan with Ronan O'Gara by offering him that carrot of not only being attack/backs coach but taking up the interim head coach role while Farrell is with the Lions.
It would mean leaving La Rochelle at the end of next season but the prize on offer would be taking over an excellent Ireland side for 2024/25 then staying on board until the 2027 World Cup. It reads well, but there are a lot of big personalities in the mix there. Even typing out the O'Gara proposal was giving me flashbacks to Warren Gatland and Eddie O'Sullivan being nudged together and told to play nice.
Brian O'Driscoll stated, after O'Gara guided La Rochelle to their second Champions Cup triumph, that Paul O'Connell is better placed, than his old Munster buddy, to get the top gig with Ireland after Farrell moves on.
If that is the case, we may see it when that Emerging Ireland squad, and tour details, are announced later this year.
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