London - The likelihood of Warren Gatland being appointed British and Irish Lions head coach for the 2013 tour of Australia increased when Welsh rugby chiefs said on Monday they were prepared to temporarily release the New Zealander for the role.
Gatland is the overwhelming favourite among the British media and bookmakers to become the next Lions coach, his case strengthened by guiding Wales to the Grand Slam in this year's Six Nations.
Roger Lewis, chief executive of the Welsh Rugby Union, said he has held informal talks with Lions officials regarding Gatland's involvement in the 10-match, five-week tour that starts in June next year.
"If the Lions approach us formally and ask us to free Warren from his contract for the Australia tour, we will negotiate the terms of his release with them," Lewis told British newspaper The Guardian. "Warren does not have a clause in his contract which contains provision for him to coach the Lions, but we are hugely supportive of him and them."
The Lions are expected to announce their coaching staff in April, and it is believed they want the head coach to be available to them a year ahead of the tour so he can attend more matches to assess players' form.
Lewis, however, is adamant that Gatland will be leading Wales on their June tour of Australia.
"I, personally, would like him to be involved in our autumn Tests against New Zealand and Australia in Cardiff," Lewis said.
Gatland was assistant to Ian McGeechan on the Lions' last tour, to South Africa in 2009, which the touring team lost 2-1.
He would become the second foreign coach of the Lions - a representative team made up of the best players from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland - after New Zealander Graham Henry in 2001.