Eight months out from the assembly of the Lions squad in Wales to commence preparations for their 2021 tour to South Africa, Warren Gatland has muddied the conversation as to who might captain the tourists for their three-Test trip to the home of the world champions.
Gatland’s Lions will play Japan in Scotland on June 26 before commencing their tour in Cape Town on July 3 with the Test matches against the Springboks commencing three weeks after that. Already there has been much speculation as to who will captain the Lions. Gatland’s 2013 and 2017 skipper Sam Warburton has retired, paving the way for a new appointment.
However, while names such as Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell have regularly been linked with the position, Gatland has now hugely muddied the waters by naming 17 players off the top of his head who could potential captain the tour party.
Asked about the credentials of England lock Itoje to step forward and lead the Lions, Gatland kicked for touch and left no one listening to him any wiser as to who might succeed Warburton as captain after the drawn 2017 Test series in New Zealand.
“To be honest, that decision is made incredibly late in terms of picking a captain,” he said. “You look at lots of factors. You look at the strength in depth in certain positions, you want the captain, if their form is good enough – there is never any guarantee, to be one of the players in your Test team.
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“For some positions, there is so much strength in depth that there is going to be a real battle for Test spots, but you have that honest conversation with the captain to say that you have been selected as captain for the tour but there is no guarantee you’re going to be selected in the Test side.
“Everyone knows that so that gives everyone potentially a bit of hope in terms of playing well. I don’t know whether I could rattle off a name. Potential captains? Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, James Ryan, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jonathan Davies, Stuart Hogg, Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown – I don’t know.
“I haven’t even thought of those things. That selection will be made very late in the piece after we have picked the squad and then we decide as a collective group of coaches who we think is the best person to do the job on tour.
“He [Itoje] is maturing as a player. When he first burst onto the scene he was into everything and he was probably overplaying and using up energy that he didn’t need to be, hitting rucks that were lost causes and those sort of things.
“Look, he has matured as a player. He is obviously an outstanding player but that is one of the positions you’re talking about – like I said you have got Alun Wyn Jones, James Ryan, Jonny Gray, there’s huge amount of strength and depth in that position. Joe Launchbury, he’s another one that could potentially captain the side as well, he’s doing that for Wasps. Joe Simmonds is another one, what he has done with Exeter.
“Yeah, I just see that maturity in Maro as a player. He is a very articulate young man, carries himself incredibly well, proud of his roots and his upbringing, what he has achieved. He is one of many that could potentially be a candidate but the bottom line is staying injury-free and making sure form is good enough.
“That’s the message and again, I don’t want to reiterate, in a position with so much strength and depth you want to make sure that (captain) person is hopefully a player that you are confident the form is going to be good enough to get a starting position.”
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