Gatland backs Jones to be Lions' leader

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland believes his Wales Grand Slam captain Ryan Jones is favourite to become the next British and Irish Lions captain. But the Wales coach has warned that even though the No 8 is a strong contender to lead the squad to South Africa in 2009, much can happen in the next 12 months.

For Jones to secure the job Gatland insists Wales need another season in 2008-09 to match their Grand Slam exploits this year. "At the moment he is a candidate to captain the Lions and he is a front-runner," said Gatland. "But between now and next year there's a huge amount of water to go under the bridge. He is only going to be Lions captain if Wales are successful in the Six Nations next year.

"Let's be frank about that – if Wales haven't been successful they are not going to pick a captain from a nation who haven't performed in the Six Nations."

Gatland himself will not become Lions head coach after the Welsh Rugby Union's chief executive Roger Lewis made it clear they would not be happy for the New Zealander to be involved in such a massive undertaking.

Jones is almost certain to lead Wales into their two Tests against world champions South Africa in Bloemfontein and Pretoria in June. He is expected to lead a strong squad after Gatland confirmed he was hoping to take as many big names as possible to the southern hemisphere.

But Gatland admitted he is worried about his scrum-half strength ahead of the summer tour. He is without Mike Phillips, who is out for six months with knee ligament damage, and Dwayne Peel, who is nursing a shoulder problem. "I'm very concerned about the scrum-halves," Gatland admitted.

"Mike Phillips is a huge loss for us at the moment, Dwayne Peel took a bit of a knock for us last weekend, while Gareth [Cooper] isn't starting regularly for Gloucester.

"It's a position where there is a bit of concern, particularly after the way Mike developed during the Six Nations – he got stronger and stronger as the tournament went on."

Gatland is due to name a squad of between 26 and 28 players in the next couple of weeks.