As Lions coach, Warren Gatland will have many difficult decisions to make over the coming months, but none more challenging than the selection of the man to captain the side in Australia. Gatland has already stated that he will pick the form players for the tour down under, and then chose the captain from there. This issue will provide a subtext to the upcoming 6 nations which will be fascinating to watch unfold. By opting for Rob Howley and Andy Farrell as assistant coaches ahead of his great mate Shaun Edwards, Gatland has already shown that he won’t shy away from making tough decisions.
On his appointment, Gatland suggested that the captain has to be guaranteed test selection, but also said that the captain could be dropped during the tour if his form slipped. There are few, if any, players who can be viewed as certainties for the test team but this will change in the coming months. However with the information currently to hand, it is worth looking at the possible candidates for the captaincy.
Nine months ago Sam Warburton was the clear favourite, having impressively led Wales at the World Cup in 2011 then to the Grand Slam in 2012. While only playing one full game in the Six Nations last year he was a significant influence in the leadership of the team. Wales have gone off the boil since then and are on a six game losing streak. Warburton has not yet regained the form of 2011 and seems to be an ongoing injury concern. Equally, Warburton has no Lions experience and at 24, would be the youngest captain since Robin Thompson led the Lions to South Africa in 1955.
As English rugby supporters continue to wallow in the glory of their magnificent victory over the All Blacks, Chris Robshaw will certainly be under consideration. He has shown himself to be an effective leader with both Quins and England, though as seen during the November internationals, Robshaw is learning much about captaincy on the job. With only twelve international caps to his name (eleven as captain) he is inexperienced and although mentioned as a long shot for selection as an uncapped player for the 2009 tour to South Africa, he has yet to be introduced to the Lions ethos. Competition for Test places in the back row will be intense and as such his position in the team is far from certain at this stage.
With Jamie Heaslip now confirmed as Ireland’s captain for the forthcoming Six Nations, he will be a strong contender for the Lions captaincy. As one of only five players to start all three Tests in South Africa in 2009, he will be favourite to retain the number 8 shirt. His short stint as Irish captain in November and a good Six Nations will put Heaslip in a strong position to meet Gatland’s criteria for Lions captain. Ireland’s opening Six Nations game against Warburton’s Wales may prove to be crucial.
Kelly Brown and Ross Ford captained Scotland during last season but it would require a great change of fortunes for either name to be added to the illustrious list of Scots to lead the Lions, such as Gavin Hastings, Finlay Calder and Mike Campbell-Lamerton.
As previous Lions captains, both Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell would be great assets for Gatland to have in his squad. With 4 world cups and 3 Lions tours to his name O’Driscoll has the experience and gravitas that all touring teams need. However, both he and O’Connell, seem to be constantly battling injury and it’s debatable whether either is likely to be first choice selections for the test team – though a fully fit O’Driscoll might be difficult to leave out. Subject to fitness it would be a surprise if one or both do not play an important leadership role on the tour.
A strong showing from Matthew Rees in the Six Nations would be required if he were to launch a late bid for the captaincy. With three Lions test caps to his name and having captained Wales on eight of his fifty-seven appearances Rees is not short of leadership experience. However, with Dylan Hartley, Rory Best and Ross Ford all vying for the hooker berth he will be up against it. While Jamie Roberts would appear to be one of the players best positioned to secure a test starting spot, his lack of captaincy experience will make it difficult for Gatland to pick him to lead the tour.
Gatland will be hoping that a natural captain emerges during the course of the next few months. Warburton is still the bookies favourite, and would be a virtual certainty were he to regain his form of 2011 and lead Wales back to the promised land of Six Nations glory. Perhaps Heaslip’s Lions experience and captaincy of Ireland in the Six Nations might be enough to swing the decision his way. An England grand slam could make it difficult not to select Robshaw – the only one of these three not to have a test match red card to his name!
The Lions need to win the series in Australia in order to avoid registering a record fourth consecutive series loss. While injury and loss of form can quickly rule a player out of contention, my hunch is that Heaslip will lead the Lions in Australia. If selected he would be Ireland’s ninth captain in what will be the nineteenth Lions tour in the post- war era.
Who do you think is the player best equipped to lead the Lions to their first series win since 1997?