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Captain? First Alun-Wyn must earn his place!

One of the oldest truisms in the game – and especially where Lions selection is concerned – is that the captain must be one of the first names on the team-sheet. On any Lions tour it is a crucial requirement that the captain is the best player in his position, because, if not, with different national allegiances within the combined side, there is no faster way to open up divisions.

The most glaring example of this was on the ill-fated 1983 tour of New Zealand, where the appointment of the Irish hooker, Ciaran Fitzgerald, as captain, undermined morale when his Test credentials were questioned.

Some 34 years later one of the first headaches for 2017 Lions coach Warren Gatland is that all four of his main captaincy candidates face serious selection challenges ahead of the New Zealand tour, including the current favourite, the Wales and Ospreys lock, Alun-Wyn Jones.

The first of these emerged this week when the victorious 2013 Lions captain, Sam Warburton, was reported to be about to step down as captain of Wales. Given that this leak came just before the Wales Six Nations squad announcement on Tuesday, there was inevitable speculation that the 28-year-old openside flanker had been tipped off that coach Rob Howley was about to make changes.

The reality is that Warburton has been severely hampered by injuries since the 2013 tour, and so far this season he has been more of a bit-part player for Cardiff Blues than a permanent presence. Hence the explanation that he is relinquishing the captaincy to concentrate on getting back to top form.

Warburton should be included in the Six Nations squad, but with Thomas Young in outstanding form for Wasps, and Justin Tipuric’s athletic presence for the Ospreys, Wales are not short of opensides. Warburton knows also that with Ross Moriarty in the flanker mix he is in a tussle for his Wales place – and that if he loses out his chances of being in the Lions squad, let alone captain, will be academic.

Jones is being touted as Warburton’s odds-on heir as both Wales and Lions captain in 2017, which should come as no surprise given that he was stand-in captain when the Lions won the third Test in Sydney to clinch the 2013 series. Jones’ inspirational leadership when Warburton was sidelined has only added to the big Welsh lock’s credentials.

The pause for thought with Alun-Wyn Jones comes because he is surrounded by high-calibre challengers in arguably the most hotly disputed territory in the squad, the second row. While he was the outstanding Lions forward in 2013, this time, four years older at 31, he faces fierce competition from all sides.

The outstanding lock pairing in Europe last season, whether at club or Test level, was the Saracens and England duo Maro Itoje and George Kruis. Jones is renowned for his work-rate, but the English rising stars are serious competition – and the same is true of the Irish duo of Devin Toner and Iain Hamilton.

Toner’s improvement over the last two years has been eye-catching – not that you could miss him – and Hamilton is one of the fastest locks on the block. Then there’s Scotland’s Jonny Gray, who is another of the new breed of second row combine harvesters without an off-switch.

Factor two more English contenders, Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury, into the equation, and with only five places for locks it is looking very overcrowded.  Lawes was back to his rugged best in the autumn, while Launchbury has added a line-out dimension to his roving qualities in the loose.

All seven of Jones’ rivals are worthy of a place at this juncture, and although the Welshman has Lions credit in the bank, he will be under no illusions that he is going to have to make an unanswerable case for himself in the Six Nations.

Then there are two hookers, Rory Best and Dylan Hartley, who are incumbent national captains. It is interesting that before he was banned in 2013 Hartley had been selected for the Lions ahead of Best, with the Irishman getting to Australia as a late call-up.

This time Best is perceived as the front-runner, with his leadership for Ireland in their victory over New Zealand overriding Hartley’s credentials as an England Grand Slam skipper during a 13-match unbeaten run.

Should Best get the nod, at 34 he will be comfortably the oldest Lions captain of the modern era – although if the Ulsterman’s form and fitness remain good, then age should be no impediment. Irrespective, the Six Nations promises to be a battle royal, and not just between Best and Hartley, whose disciplinary stock slipped again after his swinging arm ban last month.

England’s super-sub Jamie George will want to press his case, as will Wales hookers Ken Owens and Scott Baldwin. Judged purely in terms of top end form for club and country over the past year, George trumps everyone, Best and Hartley included.

Nor, in a period in which England and Ireland are on the rise, should young leaders be ignored.

Owen Farrell and Billy Vunipola are part of Eddie Jones leadership group, and George and Kruis also have a gravitas about them. The same is true of Ireland’s Robbie Henshaw.

The nub of Lions selection, including the choice of captain, has always been about striking the crucial balance between form and experience.

A core of experienced players is vital, but my conviction is that Lions coaches have to lean more strongly towards in-form players. Those who have gone too much on past performance tend to come unstuck – and in the case of Sir Clive Woodward on the 2005 tour to New Zealand, spectacularly so.

That is why the selection of the 2017 Lions captain should rest significantly on what happens during the Six Nations, and the latter stages of the European Cup, Premiership and PRO12, with the form of front-runners like Alun-Wyn Jones the main component in measuring their credentials.

NICK CAIN

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