Expect Warren Gatland to name Sam Warburton captain for Lions tour of New Zealand

DAN JONES
Driving force: Sam Warburton during the Lions’ victorious tour of Australia in 2013

And so the grappling is over. England are Six Nations champions but were choked out of a Grand Slam by a fierce Ireland performance in Dublin. Scotland dazzled until they fizzled, Wales swung alarmingly from abject to inspired. And George North bit himself on the arm, if you believe the perfidious French.

We have just enjoyed one of the finest Six Nations tournaments for years. Which is good, because in less than a month Warren Gatland names his Lions squad to tour New Zealand in June. So here’s the first big question: who does he pick as captain?

As Gatland said this weekend, the captain must have a fighting chance of being in the starting Test XV.

For what it’s worth, my back of a plane-ticket starting Lions XV includes the following men whom you could collectively call candidates: Rory Best, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton, Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell. Five big hitters, winners and, to use the unavoidable Lions vernacular, Test Match Animals.

So who gets the job? Let’s whittle them down. To my mind, Sexton will have enough to worry about at fly-half to be worrying about the captaincy. He will also be a target for the All Blacks, much as Brian O’Driscoll was back in 2005.

The sort of wanton violence that put O’Driscoll out of the First Test back then has largely been hounded out of elite rugby. But 10s still get hit hard, Sexton has been making a habit of crumpling after contact of late, and it is not hard to see Farrell or Dan Biggar finishing the series that Sexton begins.

Farrell, too, I would excuse from duty. Yes, he is now a formidable leader and a certain pick. And England deserve a candidate in the mix. But Farrell is another who has plenty on his plate already and he will potentially have a tactical role as a defensive captain, as well as being one of the team’s key goalkickers.

All of which leaves three forwards. Why not include Dylan Hartley and make it four? Because actually I am not certain that Hartley will even be on the plane, for all that he brings in terms of snap, snarl, leadership and achievement in the last two years.

Gatland suggested on Sunday that he likes Jamie George — the very definition of a ‘finisher’. My hunch is that the Lions will take Best as the Test starter and Ken Owens as the midweek hooker — a job which would not be to Hartley’s liking.

So we have Best, Jones and Warburton. All captains past or present of their countries. The two Welshmen led the Lions in Australia in 2013. They are three different personalities but all respected across the game and with the ability to command the respect of a Lions group put together with historically slim preparation time.

If I had to punt I would say that Gatland would stick with what he knows, which means Warburton.

He has worked with Warburton for years and clearly admires the flanker’s leadership style — polite, diligent, self-critical, softly spoken and exemplary. Warburton is not a Paul O’Connell or Martin Johnson style bellower (Jones is the man for that role). But he is clever, committed and builds rapport with referees, guiding them politely through the game as he wishes them to see it without irritating them.

Of course, Warburton’s excellent form this spring has coincided with his decision to relinquish the Wales captaincy and hand it to Jones, a move he made out of weariness with the intense scrutiny of rugby life in Wales — the fish bowl, as Gatland describes it.

But this is not that. Yes, the Lions job brings extra homework, much scrutiny and intense responsibility above the demands of individual performance. Nowhere more so than in claustrophobic, hostile rugby places like Auckland and Wellington. But it is also a short-term post, and in Warburton’s case, perhaps the last Lions tour.

Gatland stood one step removed from the decision to give the Wales armband to Jones — that belonged to the Lions’ attack coach, Rob Howley. So it is an easy matter for him to disavow.

Will he ask Warburton for one more hurrah? It sounded on Sunday rather like he might.

But you can’t envy him making the call.

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