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News & Comment

David Flatman: Lions need a captain who can roar at 40 alpha males

From the Front Row: Martin Johnson took me into town to buy Hawaiian shirts for the celebration

Despite varying levels of apparent influence the position of team captain seems to be viewed as vital across all sports. The skipper is charged with performing at a consistently high level and also making key decisions throughout a game.

But while every now and then in football an individual appears to stand out as a leader of men – often shouting swearwords more loudly than anybody else – most matches are controlled by a pacing, chewing, visibly ageing manager. Not all of them, though. Put aside his reputed character flaws and consider John Terry; in his pomp he played with world-class accuracy, real sporting intelligence and, perhaps most importantly, a commitment so strong that he looked willing to die for his team. He was magnificent.

Turn on the cricket and you'll see what captaining really means. There are a million variables to consider in a game of cricket, and a lot of time to consider them. But watching Andrew Strauss was, for a novice like me, awe-inspiring. His knowledge of the game and the manner in which he communicated his directions always seemed, from my sofa at least, hugely sophisticated.

Warren Gatland seems to attach somewhat less gravitas to the role. He has declared that his Lions captain may not be a nailed-on starter, and that there will be enough leaders to do the job regardless. This may be true, but I'm inclined to disagree.

Certainly the captain will rely on other senior figures to assist him. These lieutenants will come in all shapes and sizes and will perform different roles, from the enforcement of training-ground discipline to social activities (these invariably involve paintballing or beer). But for me, there has to be a top man.

I look back at the great tours – New Zealand in '71, South Africa in '74 and '97 – and I think of two things: Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson. They weren't dictators, and they weren't necessarily the men that broke the tackle that made the difference, but they were the governors, and everybody looked up to them, star players included. These blokes define the often over-bandied term "talisman".

I was lucky enough to play with some incredible captains, and they showed why I believe it is such a vital decision. Johnson was monstrous, empathetic, subtle, intelligent and harder than nails. One Tuesday morning in Johannesburg he hit me so hard that I thought my jaw was broken. That afternoon, knowing I was young and nervous, he took me into town to buy some Hawaiian shirts for the planned post-match celebration.

Steve Borthwick was a different animal – still is, actually – but he remains one of the finest captains I have come across. Not a big fan of pubs and nightclubs, he consciously separated himself from the squad in social terms, but was never disapproving, so long as his players behaved. He trained harder than everyone else and his pure psychological influence over our team and our environment was astounding.

Watching Saracens now I think he is still improving. He was up for a laugh, accommodating to those not at his extreme level of intensity and, above all, there to win. His presence was phenomenal, and it seems to be growing.

The best I experienced was Jonathan Humphreys. He could have convinced me to run through a wall. The best rugby I ever played was with Humphs, and this was only partly because he was an exceptional hooker. He had a way with his players that worked for every single one. I recall a match at Kingsholm where he disappeared for a minute before smashing the changing-room door open and storming back in. "That mob in there are talking it up, boys," he shouted. "They reckon they're gonna take this scrum apart today. Well not on my fucking watch. Flats, they're coming for you, son." It was ridiculous of us to believe that he had actually been eavesdropping, but by then we were close to frenzy. Humphs was still snarling in the 80th minute as victory was confirmed.

The Lions need a proper captain, someone who can silence some 40 alpha males with a single word. Some think Brian O'Driscoll is past it, but he is still stunningly talented with all the guts of a dog of war. I may not be a Lion but if he spoke, I'd listen.