British Lions tour: Warren Gatland’s mane man

Paul O'Connell, the Lions captain in 2009. Picture: Getty
Paul O'Connell, the Lions captain in 2009. Picture: Getty
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With the Six Nations behind us, the head scratching starts properly. Lions coach Warren Gatland has any number of headaches to contend with but more aggravating than most is the task of appointing a captain for the squad this summer.

Martin Johnson was the last successful skipper and that was back in 1997 when the game had only been professional for a year or so – such ancient history that you half expect Time Team’s Tony Robinson to present the footage.

Even the great Leicester Lion failed four years later in Australia, of all places, when he became the first man to captain the Lions on two separate tours. That was an exceptional honour but then Johnson was an exceptional leader and there are two candidates who are looking to emulate his two-tour record.

Paul O’Connell did a good job last time out in South Africa where his team was only undone by Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira in the first Test and a rush of blood to Ronan O’Gara’s brain in the second. But, at 33, O’Connell has plenty of miles on the clock and he was never the most athletic player, even in his prime. Can he stay with the pace on Australia’s hard grounds? Will he command a place in the team with some bright young things snapping at his heels because no one wants a repeat of the Ciaran Fitzgerald fiasco. The Irish skipper of the 1983 Lions was widely thought to be inferior as a player to Scotland’s Colin Deans but still played every Test in New Zealand and lost all four of them.

A fully fit Brian O’Driscoll would make any Test team on the planet but just how fit the 2005 Lions skipper will be come June is anyone’s guess. He seems to finish every match on crutches these days but he appears determined to travel so he will be at the forefront of Gatland’s mind. O’Driscoll has unfinished business with the Lions, after being unceremoniously dump-tackled out of the 2005 tour just minutes into the opening Test, and for that alone you think he will play through hell and high water.

England are sure to have a big contingent of tourists but while Chris Robshaw is an able player he isn’t the specialist seven that may be mandatory in Australia. If Gatland plumps for the English skipper it may be on the understanding that the flanker shuffles to the blindside, although Sean O’Brien and Tom Croft might discreetly clear their throats from the back of the team room.

If Gatland finds himself in a quandary he may revert to type and opt for the familiar, which is only human nature. In this case the familiar is either Sam Warburton or Ryan Jones. Neither man is a shoo-in for the Test XV but you can construct a decent argument on behalf of both.

Back in 1997 Johnson was a surprise choice since he was not captaining England at the time. That honour went to Phil de Glanville for England, Keith Woods for Ireland and Rob Wainwright of Scotland and the Welsh hooker Jonathan Humphreys. Ian McGeechan took a gamble on picking a big man who would not flinch under the usual Springbok strong-arm tactics. It paid off and O’Connell may get the nod on the same basis, although the Wallabies represent a far more subtle threat than the Bokke did back then or even now.

If Gatland is going to go for someone from leftfield who is sure of their place, then there are precious few candidates to choose from – two I reckon, Dan Cole or Johnny Sexton – and, even then, the Welsh will argue for Adam Jones and the English will raise a protest at Owen Farrell’s omission.

The fact remains that too few Lions are cast iron certainties to make the Test line-up. You could maybe pencil in half a dozen names right now. That may be a good thing, because it indicates plenty of competition for places, but it may also signify that this squad has too many good players and not enough great ones, game-changers that the Lions will need if they are to halt a long losing streak.

Pack leader: The Lions captain is likely to be chosen from a group comprising Welshmen Sam Warburton and Ryan Jones, Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell and England captain Chris Robshaw, although Johnny Sexton and Dan Cole are also in with a shout.

SAM WARBURTON

For: A canny operator and a decent leader by the looks of things since he captained Wales to a Grand Slam last season. He was outstanding against Scotland at Murrayfield and if “Gats” sticks with what he knows then Warburton remains the favourite.

Against: He can blow a bit hot and cold – some insist that Warbarton isn’t even the best openside in Wales, never mind the British Isles. Also he hails from the same camp as the coach, which has negatives and positives.

BRIAN O’DRISCOLL

For: He’s done it before, albeit briefly, and he is the best player the Six Nations has seen bar none. His mere presence at the helm would send a reassuring message to the touring squad.

Against: The spirit is willing but the body is in bits and he may even have announced his retirement by the time you read this. BOD would make the Test line-up but only if all four limbs are firmly attached to his body and there is no guarantee of that.

CHRIS ROBSHAW

For: A one hundred per cent sort of a guy who is obviously popular and successful within the England set up. He may not be the best openside in the squad but he may be the best number six, operating in tandem with Warburton on the hard grounds of Australia.

Against: A move to the blindside would see him have to fight the likes of Tom Wood, Tom Croft and Sean O’Brien for the number six jersey.

PAUL O’CONNELL

For: “Big Paulie” has only just come back (for Munster’s A team) after several months out with injury but that may be no bad thing in itself since it will at least ensure that the 33-year-old is relatively fresh. He did a bang-up job last time out in South Africa.

Against: He has plenty of miles on the clock and “POC” can no longer be guaranteed a place in the Test XV as he could in 2009. There is competition from younger lungs in the form of Joe Launchbury, Geoff Parling, Richie Gray and Donnacha Ryan.

RYAN JONES

For: He can play in any one of three positions – lock, blindside or No.8 – so the selectors have options. He has experience of captaining Wales with success and he has the respect of one and all.

Against: Not guaranteed his place and short a yard of pace in the third row of the scrum.

JOHNNY SEXTON

For: The Leinster man has won the Heineken Cup and it was his half-time call to arms when trailing Northampton by 22-6 that did much to inspire the Dubliners to victory. His main rivals for the number ten Test jersey are either inexperienced (Owen Farrell) or getting a little long in the tooth (Jonny Wilkinson).

Against: He doesn’t captain club or country.

DAN COLE

For: Although Wales’ Adam Jones is the better scrummager, Cole’s work around the park is exceptional, the only prop specialising in turnovers. He should be worth his place and the front row will be a key area if the Lions are to win.

Against: He doesn’t captain club or country.