Who should Warren Gatland pick as captain? It is one of the most difficult selections the 2017 Lions head coach will make, and it is arguably the most important because the captain sets the tone for the tour in so many ways.
There are strong cases to be made for Alun-Wyn Jones, Rory Best, Dylan Hartley, Sam Warburton, and, for me, also Conor Murray. But, just as there are very few players who would be nailed on in a current World XV – with no British team dominating that selection in the way New Zealand did when Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were in their prime – it is the same open field when it comes to selecting the Lions captain.
It is clear from Gatland’s previous faith in Warburton and Jones, for Wales and for the 2013 Lions in Australia, that they have tried and tested relationships. However, we don’t know as much about how the other candidates rub along with the head coach, and nor do we know which of them he considers to be outstanding tourists.
What we do know is that the Lions captain is someone who can be serious when he needs to be, but who knows when to have a good laugh to relieve the pressure, and can also rise above it so that the tour is not only great fun but a fantastic experience for the entire squad. Before that, of course, he has to command his place in the Test starting line-up and be inspirational in leading from the front.
When I think back to my first Lions tour in 1989 the big pre-tour question was whether Finlay Calder was the right captain because Andy Robinson was seen as the form openside. But Robinson was injured when we first went out to Australia, and Calder proved to be a great leader of men as well as an outstanding flanker – he played as well as he talked.
In 1993 it was a two horse race between Gavin Hastings and Will Carling, and Gavin was a first choice full-back who commanded his place – so there were no questions over whether he was the right man to lead us against the All Blacks.
Before the 1997 tour to South Africa you had Keith Wood, Ieuan Evans and Rob Wainwright in contention alongside Martin Johnson. Despite those options it was right to pick Johnson, even though at the time he was only captain of Leicester, and it proved to be a great choice.
In my experience the most inspirational captains are forwards, and that seems to be the case in most modern teams. However, scrum-halves also have a unique leadership role because they can feel the heartbeat of the team as the link between forwards and backs.
Murray has been the outstanding scrum-half in Europe for a number of seasons and, although Peter O’Mahony is Munster’s incumbent captain, Murray has also led his province. I’ve heard Murray interviewed, and apparently he’s a reluctant captain and leader when it comes to the media role – but that should not rule him out. I have never heard of a scrum-half who is short of things to say – you cannot have a mute scrum-half – because they are talking all the time on the field. The Ireland No.9 is no exception.
Murray is no shrinking violet, and is the full package to me as a skilful, physical scrum-half who has earned the Lions starting role. That means a big involvement on and off the pitch, and his only area of inexperience is he has not led an international side. That was the same with Johnson when he was appointed Lions captain in 1997, so we’ve seen it happen before, and it’s worked.
Hartley’s temperament at international level has not let him down since he was made England captain by Eddie Jones, and his set-piece work is top drawer. Where Hartley is less influential is around the field, because he doesn’t hurt you as a carrier. The England hooker plugs the gap with hard graft in terms of tackles and clear-outs, but to be Lions captain he may need the upgrade of making an impact as a ball-carrier.
Best is the other hooker in leadership contention, and he has the advantage of captaining an Ireland side which has beaten the All Blacks this season. I like the Ulsterman’s honesty, and the way he has taken on the leadership role so successfully after the Irish lost big figures like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell.
Best contributes strongly around the pitch, and wins important turn-overs. His carrying and off-loading can also be impressive, although on the debit side there are still the occasional wayward line-out throws and we’ve seen him sat down in contact a couple of times in the Six Nations.
Jones has displayed tremendous consistency in recent years, and has such high standards that a poor game for him is a good game for a lot of other locks. He is constantly contributing, and his power-plays have frequently been crucial for Wales, and for the Lions, as co-captain with Warburton in the series win over Australia four years ago.
Jones has few weaknesses and has a hard physicality about him that puts him at the front of a highly competitive second row queue. The only lock who might have a slight edge on him is George Kruis, because of his extraordinary mobility and impressive line-out work. Saracens have a possible seven more games, and if he can play in five of those he will be up to speed for the tour – and a fit Kruis is massive.
Pairing him with Jones, who has the invaluable experience of two previous tours, and is very streetwise in switching-on quickly to what referees allow, could be a huge boost for the Lions pack.
Warburton has the wind behind him in the captaincy stakes, not least because the Welsh openside flanker made a significant leadership impact in 2013 before he was injured. However, it would be a surprise if he got into the starting line-up at blindside – where he played for Wales in the Six Nations – because CJ Stander has been sewn into the Lions shirt on form this season.
So, Warburton is back at 7 – and with Stander at 6 and Billy Vunipola at 8, that is a back row with a good balance. There are other strong challengers to Warburton for the openside shirt, with Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell and Hamish Watson also in the frame.
My main hesitation with Warburton is that he is just a bit too injury prone, prompting concerns that he might not last the course in New Zealand. The question is one of sustainability. Can Warburton stay fit long enough to put the Lions in a winning position?
South Africa in 2009 was a brutal series in terms of its thumping physicality. New Zealand in 2017 will be brutal in an up-tempo fizz-bang-wallop way, and although the injuries to Jones and Warburton do not bother me in terms of them being fit to tour, this squad will have to be ready to fire from the start.
Murray is my left-field choice as captain, while Hartley and Best are both question-mark calls because neither hooker is a definite starter. That leaves the two Welsh candidates.
Warburton does not jump out at me as a captain like Jones, even though there would be little negative comment if either man was selected. It puts you in a quandary because Warburton is the man in possession and a good choice, and if he is fit and firing he will be a huge plus to the Lions cause – but my banker choice for 2017 Lions captain is Alun-Wyn Jones.
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