Last Saturday’s stellar performance of England’s Maro Itoje in their dominant Autumn Nations Cup win over Ireland has added fresh momentum to the campaign that the Saracens second row should captain the 2020 Lions in South Africa.
Itoje has long been talked about as a possible leader for the July trip to the home of the reigning world champions, but that speculation jumped a few levels on the back of his contribution to the 18-7 Twickenham win for the English over a very subdued Irish side last weekend.
However, RugbyPass Offload co-hosts Dylan Hartley, the ex-England captain, and Ryan Wilson, the Scotland flanker, have not been swayed by the recent praise for Itoje and the pair don’t see him leading Warren Gatland’s Lions squad in the southern hemisphere next year.
Asked if the latest efforts by Itoje with England had made him a certainty to succeed 2013 and 2017 tour captain Sam Warburton as Lions skipper in 2021, Hartley said: “No. I like Maro. He’s a hell of a player. He’s hitting his straps, he’s playing really well.
“But all this chat about him being a Lions captain and stuff like that, I suppose I have got to make some sort of comment on it. I have known Maro since 2016. I roomed with him as a young player and he is a great professional, great leader, but what you’re suggesting is he is better than Owen Farrell at captaining that England team.
Episode 8 – The Tourists #RPOffload
Ryan is fresh off another dust-up with Munster, Dylan gives us his take on England v Ireland, we add another couple of tourists to our squad and lots more?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 25, 2020
“There are so many things to consider. He has never captained an international team, so to chuck him into a Lions, it would help if he had national experience or club. I know at Junior World Cups he did that but it’s a slightly different beast to captaining the Lions team. You have got to remember who is coaching the Lions, Warren Gatland. Is there any sort of relationship there? Have they ever spoke? How do they communicate? There is so much more to consider.”
Taking his Itoje-for-Lions-captain cue from retired the ex-England and Northampton captain, Wilson, the current Glasgow skipper, chipped in: “On the captaincy stuff, it doesn’t matter what sort of player, whether you’re playing well or a brilliant player or a standout player, there is so much more to being a captain than what you see on the field. It’s everything off it.
“What I have learned the last four years at Glasgow is probably ten per cent is onfield, 90 per cent is off it and it’s all the crap that comes with it and it’s constant. The way I see Maro, I don’t know him personally but the way I have seen him in interviews and stuff, he is quite quiet.
“He is one of these guys who is the epitome of having a split personality of off the field he is this nice guy and then on the field, he becomes a completely different animal. He is out there, he is cheering above people’s heads, you see that little clip of him dancing and stuff.
“You see that of him on the field and it almost like an act. Then off the field, I see him timid, quiet, one of those guys who is in the background. I don’t know what he is like in the environment but it takes a hell of a lot more than being a good player on the field to be a captain. What I have noticed is everything off the field, that is the main thing.”
Hartley replied: “Without calling him timid, that is pretty good, he comes to life on the field. The one thing is he is really studious and I know Steve Borthwick invested a lot of time in coaching and developing his lineout ability.
“You have got to think if you’re going for a Lions tour or even an international game, you kind of want to delegate roles and if he is going to be a bang-on starter for the Lions, that means he will potentially be calling the lineout as well.
“Do you want him to go and be that competitive animal that he is and focus 100 per cent on himself, and then part of that is running that lineout and being in charge of that? As soon as you chuck in captaincy duties and management, it draws his attention and focus away from running that lineout.
“I don’t know. I’d just like to see it at international level first before you chuck him into that. Basically, I’m a big fan of his but is he better than Owen Farrell? At the moment, no, because Owen is very successful with what he is doing with England and if I had a Lions captain at the moment and a bang-on starter it would be Owen Farrell.”
Wilson added: “I reckon Maro Itoje is a locked-in Test starter, definitely. I reckon he is on there starting but as you said, you have got to have captained at international level to be going in doing that over at the Lions.
“Like what you say about Owen Farrell, everything that I have heard about him through guys that I have played with at Glasgow and Scotland who have played with him down at Sarries, he is one of these guys that demands that excellence all the time, at training, off-field, onfield.
“There is a big old job to be Lions captain but you have to bring everything together. You have got your little groups, your social groups and stuff like that when you come together, but the captain is at the front of that, he is the one driving a lot of it.
“You have got to be quite personable, someone who can talk to anyone. Again, I don’t know what Owen Farrell is like with that but I’d say leave Maro to control the lineout and do his job and be that impact player he is rather than put too much on his shoulders.”
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