Brian O’Driscoll has backed Wales flanker Sam Warburton to retain the British and Irish Lions captaincy for this summer’s tour of New Zealand after “he answered his critics in emphatic style” during the recent Six Nations championship.
Wales may have finished second bottom after winning just two of their five matches, but that does not do Warburton’s performances justice as the Cardiff Blues back-row excelled in the games against England and Ireland, two of their toughest fixtures during the tournament.
After giving up the Wales captaincy at the start of the year, 28-year-old Warburton appeared to flourish without the extra pressure, as lock Alun Wyn Jones took on the burden under interim head coach Rob Howley. The change also swung the Lions captaincy in Jones’s favour, but questions arose of his ability to lead the side and of his decision-making during the Six Nations, which has led to calls – including from O’Driscoll – for Warburton to lead the tour party for a second time.
“I believe there have been a few players throwing their hat in the ring for captaincy on the Lions tour,” said 2005 Lions skipper O’Driscoll. “The frequently asked question is, ‘What do you want from a tour captain and a team captain?’, and I would say that ideally I want them to be one and the same.
“In a perfect world your tour captain is the first name down on your Test sheet. However if that's not the case you need a leader that would have the ability to accept the disappointment of not being selected while still performing his role and getting the best out of the squad.
“Sam Warburton has become the bookies favourite (and rightly so in my opinion) for the title after some impressive performances over the past couple of months. With some question marks over his future in the Wales team, he answered his critics in emphatic style with a big tournament, in his less favoured position of blindside flanker.”
Warburton was deployed by Howley as a No 6 to ensure both he and Justin Tipuric were squeezed into the same back-row, with Dan Lydiate unavailable due to injury that has also robbed his chances of going on the summer tour. However, Tipuric’s performances over the last seven weeks were not anything to shout about, and it’s led to the argument for returning Warburton to the openside and bringing in CJ Stander of Ireland, following his impressive form throughout the Six Nations.
O’Driscoll, who also toured with the Lions in 2001, 2009 and 2013 and had such a memorable debut against Australia 16 years ago by scoring a try from the halfway line, skippered the Lions against the All Blacks in 2005, only to suffer a dislocated shoulder in the opening two minutes following a spear tackle by Tana Umaga and Kevin Mealamu.
Yet he knows that the Northern Hemisphere side will need to be at their most lethal in attack in order to defeat the No 1 ranked side in the world, and believes that Scotland’s Stuart Hogg should get the nod at full-back ahead of Wales’s Leigh Halfpenny in order to maximise the danger that Warren Gatland’s side can pose the world champions.
“Stuart Hogg has been very impressive - particularly in attack,” he added. “His ball handling has improved out of sight and has been added to an already impressive strike running game. He along with Jonny Gray have been Scotland’s stand out performers.
“Liam Williams along with a rejuvenated George North continues to be the one to watch in Wales. He's tough as a nut, has nice skills & possesses that sneaky speed - all attributes that will be called upon playing the All Blacks.”
Brian O’Driscoll is speaking on behalf of Thomas Pink – Official Outfitter of the British & Irish Lions. Register at www.pinklionrugbyclub.co.uk for exclusive Thomas Pink Lions events.