Lions leadership conundrum: Is Jones first-choice in his position?

There is no clear-cut captaincy candidate for the British & Irish Lions, writes former Springbok captain JEAN DE VILLIERS in the latest SA Rugby magazine.

Warren Gatland has a reputation for making brave and monumental calls. Who could forget his decision to back Jonathan Davies ahead of Brian O’Driscoll in the decisive Test between the British & Irish Lions and Australia in 2013?

Gatland was heavily criticised at the time, given O’Driscoll’s status in the game. However, he felt it was time to put sentiment aside. He picked Davies to start at No 13, and the decision paid dividends as the Lions went on to win the game and clinch the series.

Eight years later, the Lions coach has another difficult decision to make. It remains to be seen whether he will make the big call regarding his captain before the Tests against South Africa or whether he will change tack later in the series.

Alun Wyn Jones appears to be the obvious choice given his long association with Gatland. They formed a successful partnership at Wales for the better part of a decade, and worked closely on previous Lions tours to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

That said, is Jones the first-choice in his position? On recent form, does he deserve to start in the Lions second row ahead of Maro Itoje and James Ryan?

As a former Test captain I’ve been in that situation before, where my place in the starting XV has been questioned. I know how it can affect the individual and the team.

I’ve always found it fascinating to see how the four home unions come together under one banner every four years. There’s plenty of animosity and niggle when the players meet in the Six Nations. But when they’re picked to play for the Lions they suddenly have to work towards a common goal.

The Springboks beat the Lions 2-1 in 2009. After that series, I went to play for Munster, a club that boasted several Lions, including captain Paul O’Connell. We became good friends. Paul and I occasionally spoke about our experiences of that 2009 tour and about how leading the Lions is a unique responsibility.

O’Connell had to win the support of players hailing from four countries. He then had to lead from the front as a player, manage his leaders and players on the park, and ensure he had a good relationship with the referee.

How many players tick these boxes at present? It’s an important question and one that will be giving Gatland a few headaches as the next Lions series draws close.

Stuart Hogg, the Scotland captain and fullback, warrants a place in the starting XV. I’m not sure he could lead the Lions from No 15, though. It’s far easier to lead as a forward, as you’re closer to the action and are often within touching distance of the referee.

Johnny Sexton of Ireland and Owen Farrell of England have been listed as captaincy candidates. Are they guaranteed to start for the Lions, though? Sexton has struggled for consistency of late, and it’s still to be determined whether Farrell will play 10, 12 or even fulfill a role off the bench.

I would be wary of handing the responsibility to Maro Itoje at this stage of his career. He’s yet to lead England, and yet to experience the pressure of leading a team at the highest level. While he commands his place in the starting lineup, there’s certainly a lot more to consider as a captain and especially with regards to leading a group like the Lions.

James Ryan, on the other hand, is a player who has enjoyed a leadership role with Ireland and does command a place in the starting lineup. I wouldn’t be surprised if he is seriously considered for the Lions captaincy.

It’s a tough choice for Gatland, and again I can see why he would be drawn to a leader like Jones. The Lions will build on the momentum generated from Wales’ successful Six Nations campaign. The big question, though, is whether Jones can still deliver influential performances as a player.