Picking a captain for a Lions tour is no easy task, particularly when your chosen man will be fronting up against the best side in the world and arguably the greatest rugby team in history.
Yet it is a choice that coach Warren Gatland must make shortly, and it is proving to be one of the most contentious selection topics in recent sporting history, with the Lions having a small core of excellent leaders without one particular standout.
One way to judge a good captain is by his track record. Welsh players Sam Warburton and Alun Wyn Jones have both tasted captaincy success for their countries and – uniquely amongst their leadership rivals this time around – know what it takes to win a Lions series.
Both led by example in the 2 – 1 series win against Australia in 2013, but the challenge of bringing together one of the strongest Lions squads in decades to face a disintegrating Robbie Deans-coached Wallabies team just does not compare to the daunting task of facing New Zealand in their own back yard.
Nor has either player been in sparkling form of late. Warburton rescinded the Wales ‘armband’ to teammate Jones and whilst the latter is passion personified, his team managed only two victories out of five in this year’s Six Nations. Can Jones even be guaranteed a starting spot in the side when there are so, so many quality lock options available to Gatland?
And if you want to use victories in the southern hemisphere as a yardstick for captaincy choices then look no further than England hooker Dylan Hartley. Whilst many of the Englishman’s critics will point to his team’s failure to clinch the Grand Slam this year against a rampant Irish team in Dublin, he previously led the men in white to an unprecedented 3 – 0 series win Down Under.
His record also speaks for itself – before the Ireland game he oversaw 17 consecutive victories, with wins over every major team in the world but with one exception: New Zealand.
Yet there is only one realistic contender for the Lions captaincy this year that has thwarted the mighty All Blacks and that is Ireland hooker Rory Best.
Like Hartley, he is perhaps not the strongest contender for the number two jersey in the starting XV for the first test (Ken Owens and Jamie George look to be in pole position to start so far), yet as a leader he has achieved victory over the world’s best team in Chicago of the autumn of last year.
If the Lions want to secure a series victory over New Zealand for only the second time in their history, then maybe the man who delivered Ireland’s first ever win over the All Blacks is the right pick.
But on the flip side, Best was captain when Ireland lost 2 – 1 in South Africa against a rapidly declining Springboks team and were dispatched by New Zealand all too easily in Dublin two weeks after that famous American evening.
None of these players genuinely stands out from the rest for one reason or another, but ultimately the captain should come from the most successful team in recent times, not based on victories achieved four years ago.
Take your ‘home country’ cap off and replace it with a Lions one and the way forward is obvious: the man to lead the Lions must be either Hartley or Best.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
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