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.

News
Sir David Attenborough
people
Life and Style
Young girl and bowl of cereal
food + drink
News
Comic miserablist Larry David in 'Curb Your Enthusiasm'
peopleDirector of new documentary Misery Loves Comedy reveals how he got them to open up
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Life and Style
David Bowie by Duffy
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
News
advertisingVideo: The company that brought you the 'Bud' 'Weis' 'Er' frogs and 'Wasssssup' ads, has something up its sleeve for Sunday's big match
Arts and Entertainment
tv
News
i100
Environment
Dame Vivienne Westwood speaking at a fracking protest outside Parliament on Monday (AP)
environment
Life and Style
tech
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness