WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Wales coach Warren Gatland has agreed to take over at the helm of the Waikato Chiefs after this year’s Rugby World Cup, with the New Zealander also being given leave to lead the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa in 2021.
Gatland, 55, had signed a four-year deal, the Hamilton-based Chiefs said on Friday, replacing Colin Cooper, who quit the previous day with a year left on his contract.
A Waikato provincial stalwart in the 1980s, former All Blacks hooker Gatland had signalled earlier this year he was keen on returning to New Zealand and moving into a Super Rugby coaching role.
“I am really excited about the opportunity to come back home,” Gatland said in a statement on Friday. “The opportunity to come back as head coach of the Chiefs is something that I am really looking forward to.”
Chiefs Chief Executive Michael Collins said New Zealand Rugby (NZR) had agreed to allow Gatland to hold down the Super Rugby job and take a year out to coach the Lions. He will leave the Chiefs in August 2020 and return for the 2022 season.
“From our perspective, we always knew Warren had signed with the Lions when we were talking to him,” Collins told reporters in Hamilton.
“For New Zealand Rugby, while it might not be perfect for them, they were aware that there was a concession that had to be made.”
Collins added that Cooper’s decision to stand down had been made before they approached Gatland.
“We had known for a long time that Colin wasn’t going to coach past the end of the three-year contract,” Collins said.
“Once we knew he (Gatland) was available, he’s been the only coach we’ve been negotiating with.”
Gatland has also long coveted the All Blacks coaching job and while his Chiefs and Lions commitments mean he is unlikely to step in when Steve Hansen stands down after the World Cup he could be in a strong position to take over after his Chiefs contract expires in 2023.
Gatland has developed into one of the world’s premier coaches since cutting his teeth with Irish side Connacht before leading Ireland from 1998-2001.
He moved to English club Wasps from 2002-2005 before returning to New Zealand where he coached the Waikato provincial team and was a technical advisor for the Chiefs.
Gatland returned to Britain to take on the head coaching role with Wales in 2007 and has led them to four Six Nations titles, three of them Grand Slams.
He also led the Lions to a test series victory over Australia in 2013 and a drawn series with New Zealand in 2017.
The twice-champion Chiefs bowed out of the Super Rugby quarter-finals with defeat to Argentina’s Jaguares last week after qualifying for their eighth successive playoffs campaign.
Reporting by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Ian Ransom/Peter Rutherford