'Clear favourite for the role': Alun Wyn Jones set to be named Lions tour captain
Alun Wyn Jones is the frontrunner to be unveiled as British and Irish Lions captain to take on South Africa when Warren Gatland names his squad on Thursday lunchtime. Jones is expected to follow his success as Wales’ triumphant Guinness Six Nations skipper by becoming the latest second row to lead the Lions against the Springboks, following in the footsteps of Paul O’Connell, Martin Johnson, Bill Beaumont and Willie John McBride.
The game’s most capped player with 157 Test appearances is a clear favourite for the role with England’s Maro Itoje, also a lock, his closest rival. Owen Farrell, Stuart Hogg and Ken Owens are fringe candidates. Jones was Gatland’s last captain when the Kiwi served as Wales coach until stepping down after the 2019 World Cup and is the outstanding Lions candidate even if his Test place is not guaranteed.
While Itoje is assured of a place in the Lions’ engine room for the series against the world champions, the Saracens star has no international captaincy experience, making him a riskier option. Jones received plaudits for the way he steered Wales to victory in the recent Six Nations, coupling his return to form with canny leadership and excellent communication with officials.
The chief rivals for the role will be included among the 36 names – 20 forwards and 16 backs – read out at an announcement that is being streamed live online. It is when players will discover for the first time if they have been selected.
One of the biggest calls facing Gatland is whether to include Manu Tuilagi, whose comeback from an achilles injury in time for the final phase of Sale’s Gallagher Premiership title push is imminent. The powerful England centre has not played since September, ruling him out of the autumn and Six Nations and making his inclusion a risk, but Gatland will be aware of his unique ability to break the gainline and may decide he is worth the gamble.
"It’s a shame it’s a Thursday which is our day off because it is always nice to see the guys quickly"
– The countdown is on at the Chiefs for the 2021 Lions squad announcement #Lions ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 5, 2021
The loss of George North to a knee injury has thinned Gatland’s midfield options and Tuilagi would potentially be a more explosive alternative. Ireland captain Johnny Sexton could be one of the biggest casualties due to his ongoing issues with concussion that have limited his game time since the Six Nations.
His absence would open up a vacancy at fly-half, possibly for Finn Russell of Scotland with Wales’ Dan Biggar expected to tour and Farrell likely to travel as a centre. Marcus Smith has been shredding defences for Harlequins this season and the uncapped 22-year-old is among an extended group of over 50 players to have been notified that they are under consideration.
It would be a seismic call for Smith to be included among the 36, however, given he has yet to make his England debut. Harlequins’ mid-season resurgence has propelled Danny Care into contention at scrum-half three years after the 34-year-old veteran of 84 England caps fell out of favour under Eddie Jones.
Care has formed the Premiership’s most creative half-back partnership alongside Smith and he could profit from Ben Youngs ruling himself out of consideration. England’s disappointing fifth-placed finish in the Six Nations means they could challenge the record low of eight supplied in 2009 for their smallest Lions contingent with Billy Vunipola, Elliot Daly and Jonny May possible casualties.
But a player consistently overlooked by England since 2018 is Sam Simmonds, the explosive Exeter No8 who has a strong chance of travelling to South Africa as a bolter despite operating in a ferociously competitive position.
This will be special?? ? https://t.co/pofXFObBej
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) May 4, 2021
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