Steve Hansen had hardly announced he would step down as All Blacks head coach after next year's World Cup in Japan when speculation started as to who will replace him.

Liam Napier discusses the virtues of each of the top seven candidates for the position.

Joe Schmidt

Joe Schmidt. Photo / Photosport
Joe Schmidt. Photo / Photosport

New Zealand's gift to Ireland is preparing to return home. What next only the very private Schmidt knows.

Viewed in the Emerald Isle as the messiah and, certainly, one of the most sought-after coaches in world rugby right now.

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Ironically, given recent success, for a long time Schmidt struggled to break the perception he was not head coach material.

Assistant with Bay of Plenty; assistant at the Blues, assistant to Vern Cotter at Clermont.

Into his mid-40s, it seemed this would be Schmidt's lot.

Everyone needs someone to take a punt on them.

For Schmidt, that was Leinster. The Dublin club was brave enough, having done their homework, to back him more than anyone in New Zealand ever has.

And they struck gold. Schmidt took Leinster to repeat European championships, and the Pro 12 title in his final season, after succeeding Wallabies coach Michael Cheika in 2010.

In terms of pursuing the All Blacks, Schmidt strongly suggested in a brief statement last month that he is done with coaching post World Cup but he would, surely, not turn down the top job, if offered.

[Don't discount Joe Schmidt from the All Blacks head coach job just yet]

New Zealand Rugby boss Steve Tew confirmed to the Herald that Schmidt rebuffed an approach to return home and replace Wayne Smith in the All Blacks late last year.

The pitch was thought to be for Schmidt to work alongside Ian Foster, with the view one would likely be promoted whenever Hansen finished up.

Schmidt, instead, opted to re-sign for two-years with Ireland through to the World Cup.

That probably tells you he is no longer willing to be an assistant.

It is the nature of the beast that all head coaches are control freaks. They like to oversee everything. Schmidt is no different.

Ask Hansen, Eddie Jones or Warren Gatland to step back and take on the assistant role and expect the same response.

As Ireland head coach to date, Schmidt has done everything possible to prove his readiness for the All Blacks, expect for performing at the World Cup after Ireland bombed in the 2015 quarterfinals.

Joe Schmidt shakes hands with Steve Hansen. Photo / Photosport
Joe Schmidt shakes hands with Steve Hansen. Photo / Photosport

Ireland suffered a raft of injuries in that tournament, losing revered figures Peter O'Mahony, Paul O'Connell, Jonathan Sexton and Sean O'Brien, the latter to suspension, and were duly taken apart by the Pumas in Cardiff.

Schmidt has, therefore, since made it his mission to build depth through regular rotation to ensure his squad is much better insulated for next year.

Otherwise, his record with Ireland is compelling. Through meticulous attention to detail; technical and tactical brilliance, Schmidt led Ireland to the third gram slam in their history, three Six Nations crowns, 12 home wins in a row and two victories over the All Blacks – the first ever and first at home.

Sexton and others speak of his ruthless reviews and drive to always self-improve.

Schmidt's major challenge is simply returning home after 11 years abroad.

While stipulations stating only home-grown coaches would be considered for the All Blacks head coach were loosened, being based overseas for a long term is a disadvantage.

No matter how much Mitre 10 Cup Schmidt professes to watch, there will be decision-makers within NZR who believe that extended time away limits his inherent knowledge of New Zealand rugby – from emerging talent to future plans and player contracts.

Cotter is Schmidt's natural forwards coach, should he be offered the job, the pair having shared a 15-year friendship dating back to their Ranfurly Shield success with Bay of Plenty. But with both abroad so long, they would probably need to include some form of locally-based connection.

That could be Hurricanes coach John Plumtree, a noted defence technician who worked alongside Schmidt with Ireland in 2013.

If Schmidt was given carte blanche over his management team and the All Blacks, it is very hard to believe he would turn it down.

At this stage that seems unlikely, though, and so it probably hinges on whether he is willing to compromise, somewhat.

Financially secure, Schmidt has the option of taking time out after the World Cup to perhaps write a book or work as a consultant much like former Black Caps coach Mike Hesson now does.

Schmidt will also be well aware that, should he opt out of the All Blacks, he will be favoured to lead the British and Irish Lions to tour South Africa in 2021.

Not a bad position, is it?

Ian Foster

Ian Foster. Photo / Photosport
Ian Foster. Photo / Photosport

Groomed to be next in line as far back as 2005 with the now defunct Junior All Blacks, Foster is Steve Hansen's protégé, the succession plan, however you want to describe it.

In some ways it has long felt there is an unwritten agreement that if the All Blacks win the World Cup in Japan next year, Foster will get the gig.

NZR's top brass will tell you that has never been the case but it was pretty much how it went for Hansen.

NZ Rugby maintains all coaching appointments are open, transparent and contestable. But it is never that straightforward.

While unrivalled success flows, promotion from within is very difficult for anyone to dismiss; as good as set in stone.

The timeline to appoint the next All Blacks coach, December, 2019, was signed off by NZR's board and so any form of umbrage with the process needs to be broadened to include those members.

Leaving decisions until after the World Cup undoubtedly makes life tricky for other contenders, many of whom are forced to decide their respective futures well before then.

Foster has long encompassed the argument for continuity. As is the case in Ireland, where Andy Farrell will succeed Schmidt, this process is widely adopted and accepted.

It does, however, come with the attached promise of a smooth transition.

For the record, Hansen's record immediately post Graham Henry is near immaculate, losing one in 28 tests across his first two years at the helm. That seems an unrealistic expectation for anyone, even the All Blacks, to bear.

To be fair, Foster is his own man. He is ambitious but has never said he is the next Hansen, and in many respects is a very different personality; someone with a gentler touch.

Steve Hansen with Ian Foster. Photo / Photosport
Steve Hansen with Ian Foster. Photo / Photosport

In a sign of his willingness to assemble a strong team, Foster is believed to have reached out to see if Schmidt would run on his ticket. As mentioned, though, this is thought to be unlikely.

Foster's promotion would come with inner working knowledge of the All Blacks, a team run on formulaic schedules. He comes with established relationships, systems, Scott McLeod as defence coach and, possibly, Jono Gibbes as forwards coach to complete the Waikato connect.

Gibbes, signed to French club La Rochelle for four seasons, may be able to wriggle out should the All Blacks open the door.

Foster is also across regeneration, one of Hansen's strengths, which is again well underway.

Yet many of the finest in their field, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, are expected to leave for short term stints after the World Cup. Many other senior statesmen will leave for good, too.

The at times polarising divide on Foster comes between those who believe he is much improved for his time and contributions to the All Blacks, and those who circle a ring around his last head coach experience with the Chiefs.

His eight-year stint (2004-11) – on par with Colin Cooper at the Hurricanes – yielded the franchise's maiden semifinal in his first season, and one forgettable final in Pretoria.

In between times, the Chiefs were plagued by inconsistency. In its entirety Foster's tenure registered a tick over 50 per cent (52 wins from 103 games, including five draws).

Other than that, Foster's biggest hurdle is his lack of offshore test experience which was, previously, close to a deal breaker.

Wayne Smith, 18 years ago, was the last All Blacks head coach not to tick this box but he had spent significant time in Italy and Northampton.

Henry and Hansen, both with Wales, and John Mitchell, as England and Ireland forwards coach, all satisfied this preference.

In an interview early last year prior to his departure as NZR general manager, Neil Sorensen said: "I can tell you that Fozzie is really clear, and we're clear at our place, that when he signed with us to extend his contract, he said 'I'm worried - maybe I need to go offshore for a while and come back'.

"He made that decision to stick around with a successful All Black side ... when the panel sits down they will have to take that into account. Fozzie will be sitting there thinking 'maybe I should have gone offshore and it will count against me'."

All eyes on the World Cup, then.

Scott Robertson

Scott Robertson. Photo / Photosport
Scott Robertson. Photo / Photosport

One out of the box, Robertson is unconventional but, clearly, effective. Six titles as head coach and a break dancing revolution pushing towards a potential red and black dynasty is hard to argue with.

Much of Robertson's success stems from infectious enthusiasm; his high energy and passion inspiring even grizzled All Blacks veterans.

Team bands and regular pranks – turning up at teammates' houses to mow the lawns or cook dinner – are among bonding activities that strive to foster an environment players enjoy and, therefore, want to stay.

Despite leading Canterbury to three titles in four years, Robertson's promotion to replace Todd Blackadder surprised many. A bit of a gamble, some suggested, given that provincial post was his first head coach role.

Robertson's outgoing, exuberant personality could easily have jarred with a traditionally conservative region. Instead, on the back of successive Super Rugby titles, the first ending significant angst following an eight-year drought, Robertson can now do no wrong it seems.

[History makers: How Scott Robertson is building a dynasty amid the Christchurch rubble]

No one even raised an eyebrow when he recruited Irishman Ronan O'Gara as assistant coach.

While young, the 44-year-old has been coaching for 12 years now. He is also content to be patient; perhaps knowing this next cycle is one too soon.

Robertson also lacks test coaching experience. He loves surfing and could, one day, return to the south of France where there would certainly be no shortage of interest.

He also, if we are honest, probably does not have the adversity box ticked just yet.

The All Blacks head coach role draws much more scrutiny and pressure than any at Super Rugby. Look no further than the extreme, irrational fallout in some quarters from defeat in Dublin.

Is Robertson ready to handle such a situation?

While he oversaw one New Zealand under-20s crown, the following year his side failed to make it out of their pool.

Those experiences are almost more valuable than all championships combined.

Dave Rennie

Dave Rennie. Photo / Photosport
Dave Rennie. Photo / Photosport

Among the best talent scouts New Zealand has seen, Rennie's legacy is as much his 'golden generation' under-20s team as it is his remarkable transformation of the Chiefs.

Rennie's 2011 edition is the best age-grade side the world has witnessed.

Sixteen of the 26-man squad went onto play test rugby. They included Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Codie Taylor, Steven Luatua, Charles Piutau, Waisake Naholo, TJ Perenara, Lima Sopoaga, Brad Shields and others.

How could they not win the title?

Those close ties to emerging talent – he coached the 20s to three successive world crowns (2008-10) – formed the backbone of Rennie's Chiefs that immediately delivered back-to-back titles.

This is a greater achievement than Robertson's replica feats as the Chiefs had never tasted such success and their squad was largely new and raw.

In his first season alongside Wayne Smith and Tom Coventry, Rennie started afresh by recruiting 15 players; Aaron Cruden, Cane and Retallick among them, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Damian McKenzie later lured from down south.

Together that tight-knit management team crafted a culture around personal meaning. 'Chiefs Mana' was born as they all pitched in to build their Ruakura training base.

Rennie emerged from the grassroots and became a creative and popular mentor; a great man-manager who inspires commitment and passion from his players.

He is the last coach to win the provincial title with Wellington, some 18 years ago, and then went onto lift Manawatu from the old second division to competitors among the big boys.

With the Chiefs, Rennie reached the semifinals four out of six years and the knockout stages in the other two; finishing with a 68 per cent win ratio - bettered only by the Crusaders with 69 per cent - and a huge improve on the Chiefs' 45 per cent prior to his arrival.

His battles arose from one too many clashes with the establishment, essentially holding his ground on issues such as playing McKenzie at fullback rather than the All Blacks' preference at the time for first five-eighth.

The fallout from the stripper scandal, handled poorly by the chief executive at the time, clouded the latter stages of Rennie's tenure and much other work throughout the community.

But speak to any of those who played under Rennie, and they are glowing of his abilities.

Rennie is expected to re-sign with Glasgow soon but a 12-month extension would leave the door open to international possibilities.

Many were surprised Wales opted for Wayne Pivac over Rennie to replace Warren Gatland.

A personal view, but a Rennie-Jamie Joseph combination could work well. Three Super Rugby titles covering both Islands between them, and a complementary backs/forwards duo.

Jamie Joseph/Tony Brown

Tony Brown and Jamie Joseph. Photo / Photosport
Tony Brown and Jamie Joseph. Photo / Photosport

Package deal these days. Joseph is thought to be earning around $2 million annually but Japan is frequently used as a stepping stone to more attractive tier one test jobs.

Just ask Eddie Jones.

The significance of Joseph and Brown leading the Highlanders to their maiden title should never be understated. Nobody gave them a chance of reaching the final, let alone upsetting a Hurricanes side bidding to farewell some of their favourite servants in Wellington.

It still ranks as one of Super Rugby's greatest underdog triumphs.

Based around core All Blacks, Joseph and Brown recruited wisely. Often this involved selecting castoffs other Super Rugby teams deemed surplus.

Having proved what they could do with many non-test starters, what could they achieve with the All Blacks?

Joseph's ruthless, hard-nosed approach is summed up by stories of him hiding cameras at training and later punishing those not giving 120 per cent.

This drive to thrash players is thought to have softened somewhat over time and with Brown's tactical backline brilliance alongside him, they devised the up-tempo style that saw the Highlanders thrive.

It was no coincidence Lima Sopoaga's game went to another level with Brown's arrival. His guidance, at some stage, could have a similar impact on the cream of New Zealand first-fives.

Warren Gatland

Warren Gatland. Photo / Photosport
Warren Gatland. Photo / Photosport

Occupying the Welsh throne for what feels like generations, Gatland steps down following the World Cup.

In 12 years he delivered three Six Nations titles, two with grand slams, and the World Cup semifinal defeat to France in which Sam Warburton received his infamous red card.

Gatland's record against Southern Hemisphere nations has, however, been poor; 39 per cent (24/61) with 17 of those wins coming against the Pacific Island nations, Argentina, Namibia and Uruguay.

Last year's drawn British and Irish Lions in New Zealand will forever be a feather in Gatland's cap, as is the 2-1 series victory in Australia.

Gatland has suggested he will return home to spend more time with family next year but also appears well in the frame to succeed Jones.

Don't mention "WB" but Gatland's favoured style – the physical, war of attrition template successfully used with Ireland, Wasps, Waikato, Wales and the Lions – certainly suits England's athletes more than the All Blacks.

Adding to this theory is the fact RFU interim chief executive Nigel Melville appointed Gatland as Wasps forwards coach in 2002.

While 22 of his 29 years coaching has been spent abroad, from a New Zealand perspective Gatland's extensive experience must hold value in some capacity.

In terms of the All Blacks, that extended time away will no doubt count against Gatland and it is unknown who he would partner with but he should at least be in the conversation.

Vern Cotter

Vern Cotter. Photo / Photosport
Vern Cotter. Photo / Photosport

Often a forgotten man, given his 12-year coaching stint abroad, Cotter is highly regarded throughout Europe.

His success with Bay of Plenty, the Crusaders, Clermont, whom he led to their breakthrough Top 14 crown after falling short in three previous finals, and Scotland compiles an impressive CV that has at various points seen him linked to the England job.

Now 56, Cotter may not have the appetite for a second crack at the All Blacks head coach role after being knocked back in 2012 when Hansen assumed the mantle.

In an interview with the Herald in October, Cotter suggested Montpellier would be his last coaching position.

If Schmidt taps him on the shoulder, though, one suspects he would be interested.