With every minute of rugby from now until the end of the season we can slowly continue pencilling in the names on our Lions XV team sheet. We might finally all be agreeing that Dan Cole should start at prop, O’Brien needs to be in the back row and Tuilagi in centres. Yet there is one debate that still rages on in rugby clubs and pubs across the country and that is: who should have the honour of leading the Lions on their tour down under? It’s likely over the coming months player will lose form or pick up injuries, but with over half the Six Nations having already elapsed it seems as good as time as any to begin evaluating the contenders.
BOD was back to his best against Wales on the opening weekend of action, rolling back the years in a man of the match performance. However, since then his performances against both England and Scotland have left a lot to be desired. There are also increasing suspicions that his Lions starting berth is under significant pressure from the English pair of Barritt and Tuilagi, something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
What can’t be argued though is that O’Driscoll would have the respect of the touring party. His 83 caps won as captain and three Lions tours is more experience than the other contenders put together, while even at 34 he is one of few truly world class players at the Lions’ disposal. If none of the main candidates for captaincy can be guaranteed a starting position in the match day 15, O’Driscoll would be a wise choice as tour captain.
The English flanker has arguably been the stand out performer of the Six Nations so far, with man of the match performances against both Ireland and France. These performances, along with captaining England to an emphatic victory over New Zealand, have made Robshaw one of the front runners for captaincy this summer.
However, what we shouldn’t forget is back in the autumn his decision making arguably cost England wins against both Australia and South Africa. What his chances of captaincy will probably come down to is whether or not Gatland sees a place for him in his starting back row, but if he leads England to their first Grand Slam since 2003 he surely will, and stands a good chance of wearing the armband.
Only a year or so ago Warburton was probably the first name on the Lions team sheet, with a ‘C’ pencilled in by his name. The youngster had led Wales to the semi-finals of the World Cup and followed this up by leading the team to the 2012 Grand Slam.
However, since then Wales have suffered a run of eight defeats including five at the Millennium Stadium. An injury left Warburton out of the clash against France, which the Welsh subsequently won, and he has since been forced to sit on the bench. It’s hard to consider a man for Lions’ captaincy when he can’t even start for his country; however, Gatland has a lot of respect for the flanker and could be the man to get the best out of him. Unlikely to be captain but stranger things have happened.
Some might argue that Brown was taking over a poisoned chalice when he became the fifth Scottish captain in two years, but since then Brown has brought a new toughness and efficiency to the team. For the first time since 2001 the Scots have achieved back to back victories in the Six Nations and Brown has to take a large amount of credit for this. In both wins Scotland had less territory and possession but still managed to grind out the victory, a sign of great leadership.
Unfortunately for Brown though, he is battling just to get on the plane, let alone for the captaincy. Few would probably select Brown in their starting Lions XV at present, meaning his chances of captaincy are slim. However, if he does get on tour the Scot would definitely be an outstanding candidate for the midweek captain.
After 40 minutes of Six Nations captaincy the Irishman was making a real claim for the Lions job. He had seen his Ireland team go in 23-3 up at half time and seemingly on course to victory. Since then, however, Heaslip has had a tournament to forget and might find himself hard pushed to even make it onto the plane at this rate.
However, we shouldn’t be too quick to write off a man who played every minute of every test in South Africa. Like Robshaw it might just take Heaslip a few games to get use to the rigours of international captaincy and wins over Italy and France could again put him into contention. He will probably miss out on captaincy this time round but can still be an important leader on the pitch.
Alun Wyn Jones
A (very) outside shout for the Lions captaincy is the giant Welshman. Over the past five or so years Jones, despite injury, has been one of the best second rows in European rugby. Having been part of the 2008 and 2012 Grand Slam winning teams he has that natural winning mentality and also has Lions experience having played in all three tests on the last tour.
Counting against the Welshman is a lack of international captaincy experience, having only led Wales once. He has captained the Ospreys since 2010 though, while those who remember the 1997 Lions tour will know that Martin Johnson had never captained England before being given the captaincy. Perhaps a more significant reason for discounting Jones would be the new breed of second rows. Gray, Launchbury, Parling, Lawes, Ryan and McCarthy have all excelled in recent years and Jones may struggle to get past that group to make the match day XV, especially when considering recent injuries. Therefore he is unlikely to be chosen as captain, but if Gatland does go for an unconventional choice Jones could be the man.
By Guy Michels