British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has dropped the heaviest hint yet that his mind might be made up about who will captain the tour next year. The Lions tour to South Africa, presuming that it isn’t disrupted, will see the men in red play the Springboks in three test matches, the final Test to be played on August 7th. There has been significant debate over who will skipper the famous touring side, with Owen Farrell, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje the three favourites to land the gig.

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Gatland has been named as coach of the last six decades by Rugby World and has given his thoughts on the matter in Tuesday’s 60th anniversary edition of the magazine, thoughts that suggest that the New Zealander could already have his man.

”Itoje is the name that keeps cropping up.”

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“He’s an intelligent player and an intelligent man and has been incredibly successful in his career,’ said Gatland. ‘He would definitely be in contention as one of the possibilities as captain.

‘It’s about picking the squad and then saying who do we think will be captain material. Ideally, it’s somebody who has come from a team that’s been pretty successful. The next question is if we were picking the Test team now, is there a good chance this person would make that Test team?’

‘Itoje is the name that keeps cropping up,’ said Gatland. ‘You look at that and go, well, there are some pretty good second rows around and he’s not bad. You have Courtney Lawes and George Kruis.

‘How’s Alun Wyn Jones going at that time? There’s James Ryan. There’s no doubt about Itoje’s quality.’

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Fellow Lions guru Sir Ian McGeechan seems to agree with Gatland, and has already suggested that Itoje is the obvious choice. “Predicting who Gatland might select as captain, however, requires less guesswork,” writes McGeechan in his Telegraph column. “To be honest I think there are probably only three genuine contenders as it stands: Owen Farrell, Alun Wyn Jones and Maro Itoje.”

Crucially McGeechan doesn’t believe Alun Wyn Jones is a certainty to start, effectively ruling the Welshman out of the role. “Jones is not certain of his starting spot. He will be 35 by next summer and the competition at lock is ferocious.

“James Ryan has really pushed on and I would start with him and Itoje together at lock if the first test was tomorrow.”

“Itoje, at least, is a certain starter. One of very few in the team. And I think that’s important. You can make an argument for having a ‘tour captain’ and a ‘Test captain’ but I think the key moments on a tour arrive in the crucible of Test match arenas so that is where you want your tour captain; your on-field emissary.”

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Gatland Lions

Lions head coach Warren Gatland (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

“Itoje is a player I admire hugely,” said McGeechan, who has studied the England lock’s game. “What you see is an intelligent player who reads the game well, getting himself into key positions at key moments in the game, to slow down or accelerate depending on the need.

McGeechan believes the Saracens’ lock’s loss in the Rugby World Cup final will have taught him much ahead of a tour in which the Springboks will look to bully the tourists physically.

“He is certainly a player I would love to have coached. Technically and physically Itoje is designed for the modern game; he hits rucks accurately and creates turnovers – if you are loose, he will punish you – and he has good hands. But above all it is his uncompromising attitude which stands out. Itoje is incredibly competitive.”

The Lions guru believes Itoje would command the respect of his teammates on tour. “They’ve all been up against him for club and country and they know what he is all about. Itoje is the sort of player you want to play with rather than against. Martin Johnson was the same – a nightmare to play against.”

McGeechan admits Owen Farrell, many people’s favourite to captain, is doing “doing a good job with England” but should be let to play without the pressure of captaincy.

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