Warren Gatland has plenty on his plate right now selecting his Lions squad and planning an operationally challenging campaign against the World champions, but I would suggest picking the tour captain is not one of the issues causing any loss of sleep.
There are two outstanding candidates in my mind, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje. Of the two, I would unquestionably opt for the Wales skipper — which says everything about Jones as there is no bigger fan of Maro than me.
When choosing the Lions captain you look for a number of qualities, a tick list in descending order of importance if you like. It is a simple but effective method in my opinion.
Warren Gatland has two outstanding candidates for the Lions captaincy in South Africa
Alun Wyn Jones has amassed 148 caps for Wales and is a veteran of three tours with the Lions
Maro Itoje has shown himself to be a leader for both Saracens and England despite his age
1 This is the most important of all. You must be an automatic starter in the Test team and there are actually very few such individuals. There were those who doubted Jones back in the autumn but he was a rejuvenated figure in the Six Nations, one of the best forwards in the tournament. If he takes that form into the Lions series he will be one of the first names on the team sheet.
For me, Itoje is also in that category. He wasn’t always at his absolute best in the Six Nations and has started attracting the attention of referees and picking up penalties.
But can I imagine the Lions beating South Africa without the Saracens lock in their boilerhouse? No way.
Jones 1 Itoje 1
2 A Lions captain should ideally already be a skipper with club and/or country. It’s a huge job, it hits you from all angles and you are likely to be captaining other well-established captains. Above all else you need experience of knowing how to manage a referee.
That was evident right at the end of the 2017 series when Sam Warburton somehow persuaded Romain Poite to revisit his original penalty decision against Ken Owens right at the death. Five or six years of skippering Wales at the top level and earning the trust and the respect of referees around the world culminated in Warburton being allowed to make that intervention and successfully plead the Lions’ case.
Jones has that experience in buckets, Itoje doesn’t. Itoje is a leader on the field and I have no doubt he will captain England at some stage but, for the present, Jones trumps him in this respect.
Jones 2 Itoje 1
Sam Warburton had the experience of knowing how to manage a referee on the Lions tour
3 Your Lions captain should be a proven decision-maker in the heat of battle. When to kick for touch, when to go for goal, tap and go, when to go for broke, when it’s time to knuckle down and just get through the next two minutes. Jones had been there and got the T shirt and my gut instinct, my punt as a coach, would be that Itoje has as well.
Jones 3 Itoje 2
4 You must also be able to delegate. Many Lions skippers have been forwards who tend to find themselves buried at the bottom of rucks and mauls. Therefore they must be able to work closely with trusted lieutenants on the field who can be making decisions for the team while the skipper is coming up for air.
In particular, the captain needs to be in tune with his scrum-half who makes those instant tap-and-go decisions and also does much of the managing of referees. Again Jones is proven, but I strongly suspect Maro shares this quality.
Jones 4 Itoje 3
5 Lions skippers must have the total respect of peers on and off the field and within the game generally because a Lions tour is a global marquee event in the rugby calendar and is followed by fans from every nation. Everything you say and do will be poured over by the media. Both score equally.
Jones 5 Itoje 4
I have direct, personal, ‘on tour’ experience of four Lions skippers. My first captain on the 1980 Lions tour of South Africa was Bill Beaumont and he was a brilliant skipper. He was at his peak as a player, an automatic first choice at lock forward, liked and respected by all. Bill presided over a happy, if injury-plagued tour and although we lost 3-1 he could not have done any more.
Three years later, Ireland’s Ciaran Fitzgerald was a likeable, hard-working guy but although a decent Test hooker, he was not in the same league as Colin Deans on tour — or Peter Wheeler, who had been overlooked for the trip to New Zealand. It made life difficult. The Lions wouldn’t drop Fitzie, the media wouldn’t let the story die and the Irish contingent on tour, understandably, became a bit protective of their national skipper.
Irish great Brian O’Driscoll ticked all the boxes to be a very successful Lions captain
In 2005, it was Brian O’Driscoll who ticked all my five boxes and I am still disappointed for BOD that he was denied the opportunity of showing what a great Lions captain he could have been by the infamous Umaga/Mealamu spear tackle.
I have no doubt Brian would have risen to the challenge as a player and skipper had he been allowed to play a full part.
When Brian was injured I turned to Wales’ Gareth Thomas, who was a revelation to me in the way he kept the squad’s enthusiasm in the most difficult of circumstances. We couldn’t stem the All Blacks tide but I was left with a huge respect for Gareth and a touching letter he wrote to me after the tour is one of the few rugby mementos I’ve kept.