Warren Gatland insisted this weekend that his first task is not to choose his British and Irish Lions captain, but to pick the full squad that will be named on Wednesday at midday. The head coach, who leads his second successive Lions tour, this time to New Zealand after 2013’s successful venture to Australia, knows exactly how hard the job is, but also the way to handle all the questions that are thrown at him from all four nations that make up the Lions.
So what are those questions? The squad and captaincy are certainly the most obvious, but are they the most important? What about the make up off the squad – will too many Englishmen reduce the collective spirit of the Lions, will not enough negate their world record-equalling 18-match winning streak, or will a lack of Scotsmen lessen the attacking threat that they have shown over the last year – and whether he will choose a midweek captain or rotate the responsibility among a core group of senior players?
These are just a handful of questions that Gatland will face this week, and here we explain why they will be so crucial to securing just a second series victory against the All Blacks in the history of Lions.
Who makes the squad?
The obvious one that will be answered when Gatland names an expected 37-man squad on Wednesday. The New Zealander will have known the bulk of his touring party for quite some time, with the Six Nations playing a large part in deciding if those heading to the Southern Hemisphere this summer are Lions tourists or just tourists.
Who will be captain?
Being named Lions captain is an honour bestowed on the very best of international rugby, with the recent names of Sam Warburton, Paul O’Connell, Brian O’Driscoll and Martin Johnson displaying the calibre of player required to lead the squad. Gatland has plenty of options to choose from, with current international captains Alun Wyn Jones and Rory Best tipped for a place in the squad and England skipper Dylan Hartley facing an uncertain wait to see if he makes the cut. The chosen one will need to lead by example and ensure that, no matter what Gatland or others may say, that the captain is the first name on the teamsheet. Given how crucial the squad leaders have proven over the history of the Lions, having a captain not worthy of his place in the squad simply isn’t acceptable.
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
British and Irish Lions captain candidates
1/6 Alun Wyn Jones
Jones is probably still the leading candidate for the captaincy, even if his, and Wales’, Six Nations was not what they were hoping for. Jones took the Welsh armband from Sam Warburton for the championship but at times looked uneasy at making a call, such as when he was overruled when Wales opted to go for the corner against Scotland, rather than taking the shot at three points. Jones captained the Lions in the deciding third Test against Australia in 2013 and is a guaranteed starter if fit – something Gatland is keen for his captain to be, although not a necessity.
2/6 Sam Warburton
Had Wales not finished fifth in the championship with three defeats, there is a good chance Warburton would have been named player of the tournament. The way he reacted to losing the Wales captaincy and moving to blindside flanker has been phenomenal and he is now the bookies’ favourite after his performances and having already led the Lions to a tour victory. Of Warburton’s chances, Gatland said: “He's a different captain to some other players. He leads by example. He doesn't say a lot but he has had that experience. He's one of the guys potentially in contention, definitely.” However, he has been so good without the burden of the armband, would giving it to him hinder his performances?
3/6 Dylan Hartley
Before his red card for Northampton in December, Hartley was the frontrunner for the armband but now his place on the plane is not even assured. For England, Jamie George has impressed and could usurp his captain’s position over the next 12 months, with Hartley arguably not even the third most impressive Hooker the home nations boasted during this year’s Six Nations. However, his grit and fire has been one of the reasons for England’s success under Eddie Jones and it is that sort of personality which could be vital in the hotbed of New Zealand.
4/6 Rory Best
The way Best led Ireland to ending England’s unbeaten run shows that he has the ability to motivate the players around him in tough and gritty situations. He has also captained a side to a win over the All Blacks, the only candidate who is able to say that. Best is certainly a viable candidate but the question mark that remains hanging over him is if he is good enough to start at hooker against the All Blacks? Hartley, Best, George and Wales’ Ken Owens are all in with a shout.
5/6 Owen Farrell
Farrell was player of the tournament after a stunning Six Nations. His kicking is up there with Leigh Halfpenny’s as amongst the best in the world and he has the right mentality of a captain having been schooled under Eddie Jones. Farrell looks certain to start at 12 for the Lions and would make a fierce captain. However, having not captained an international side from the start, how would he fare leading the most intense tour the Lions have embarked on? It is a tough challenge for the most weathered of captains, never mind a novice.
6/6 Conor Murray
An outside shout for captain but the way he controls the game from around the ruck shows his importance to the Lions. He, like Best, has experience of beating the All Blacks and of a winning Lions Tour (like everyone on this list, other than Hartley). He has captaincy experience but while he was a certain starter a month ago, the performances of Rhys Webb have given Gatland a real decision to make. He said he wants to pick his squad first and then his captain and that could go against Murray in the decision-making process if Webb is now considered ahead of him.
Will there be a midweek side and captain?
Some coaches have chosen to deploy very separate Test and midweek sides in order to help players build relationships over the seven-week tour, but that hasn’t always been a recipe for success as Sir Clive Woodward’s 2005 tour to New Zealand showed. Last time in Australia, Gatland rotated his team selection as he saw fit, with something similar to his Test side being deployed in games two and five. That would mean sending his first XV out against the Blues and the Maori All Blacks, though it is the game against the Crusaders in week three that may prove the most difficult with the Canterbury side currently leading the way in Super Rugby.
That also brings up the prospect of a midweek captain, something Gatland has spoken about previously with his preference for a past tourist leading the side. With Alun Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, the two leading candidates to captain the squad, expected to be named in the Test XV, that leaves the midweek role to someone else. Four years ago, Gatland was able to call on O’Driscoll, O’Connell and Best, and it could fall to the Irish hooker once again, along with an experienced tourist such as Wales No 8 Taulupe Faletau, to take on that role this time around.
How many fly-halves will he take?
Gatland has plenty of options here. The first is to stick with the common approach of taking three fly-halves, which would likely see Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell joined by one of George Ford, Dan Biggar or Finn Russell. The second, more risky choice, could be to take just Sexton and Farrell as recognised 10s, with full-back Stuart Hogg providing the cover if needed at stand-off. However, that’s what Gatland chose to do in 2013, and the only game that the Lions lost came when Hogg lined up against the Brumbies at fly-half. However, by taking one fewer fly-half, Gatland opens up his options in over areas where the addition of an extra player can help boost his options to conquer the All Blacks where strength in depth is needed. The only complication is that with Farrell expected to start at centre alongside Sexton, the options to cover the fly-half role begin to look a little thin.Reuse content