The forthcoming British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa brings with it much fervour and debate. Fearghal Kerin examines the cases of the potential captains.
Last week saw the announcement of the management team for next summer’s British and Irish Lions tour, and it bore a distinctly Welsh feel. Despite being led by Scot, Ian McGeechan, a man as deeply immersed in Lions culture as any man living or dead, the backroom staff has a distinctly Celtic feel, reflecting Wales’ Grand Slam last time out.
The tour sees the Lions visit South Africa next June, and despite a somewhat disappointing and inconsistent Tri-Nations tournament in their first outing as World Champions, the Springboks go into the Lions series on the crest of a wave.
The continual blossoming of Francois Steyn lights up the ‘Boks backline, and an uncompromising forward pack that ground down all comers twelve months ago in the World Cup make them a formidable side for any team, not least a team with little chance to play together in the run-up, certainly compared to international sides.
From an Irish point of view, it is difficult to assess how many of our players are likely to tour, let alone make the starting XV. Lions’ tours are notorious for springing surprises. Who would have expected late call-up Simon Easterby to star as he did on the last tour?
The coming November Tests are the first opportunity for Leinster starlets, Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, to stake a claim for selection, while Eoin Reddan and Ronan O’Gara, like all other Irish starters, will see the coming months as key to securing a coveted starting berth.
As always, the debate as to who should be captain is one that arouses great interest, debate and invariably, controversy. It is the Irish and Welsh, however, that appear to have the outstanding candidates for the role.
Welsh captain, Ryan Jones appears to be in the lead at this moment in time, with bookmakers favouring him off the back of his record at international level, securing two Grand Slams and still in his mid-twenties. Couple that with the fact that the coaching staff has such a distinctively Welsh feel to it, it is unthinkable that Jones would not be in the forefront of McGeechan, Gatland and Edwards’ thoughts at this time.
However, it is also likely that Munster talisman, Paul O’Connell will come in to the reckoning as a result of his success at provincial level and his combative style on the field. Few players lead from the front in the manner of O’Connell and his style of captaincy would depart from that potentially offered by Jones.
A fair observation or not, Jones has an inherently laid back nature, certainly in comparison to the Limerick man and question marks lie over whether this would be an optimum quality for a tour against the dogged Springboks.
In addition, this could give O’Connell and his comrades in the Lions ‘tight five’ the impetus needed to take on the might of World Cup winners like Victor Matfield, Bakkies Botha and Jon Smith.
Irish captain, Brian O’Driscoll has a strong chance of becoming just the second man to lead two Lions tours. After all that happened in 2005 in Christchurch, O’Driscoll has unfinished business on the greatest stage. Couple this with his recent resurgence to form and an unparalleled experience amongst those likely to tour; many favour the injury prone centre to retain his role.
However, after a barren and disappointing two years at Leinster, O’Driscoll’s return to form this term has coincided with the transference of his captaincy to Leo Cullen. A school of thought 19suggests that captaincy takes from the natural game of O’Driscoll.
It is true that liberated from this, he has found his best form that has allowed him even to be reconsidered for the role. It is up to McGeechan et al to weigh up these variables, but it is the associated uncertainty that comes with the modern O’Driscoll that is likely to see him pale behind the two other major contenders.
In the Irish duo’s favour is the need for the coaches to not allow the balance of power to topple entirely to the Welsh players. Just as the newly appointed Irish coach, Declan Kidney needed to appoint a Leinsterman (in the form of Brian O’Driscoll) as captain to prevent a Munster domination on the international scene, so too does McGeechan need to allow a variance from what looks like being a Wales-heavy touring party.
As a result, whether it be the former UCD man, O’Driscoll or O’Connell, an Irishman now looks likely to again lead the British and Irish Lions.
Regardless of who gets the nod, the potential squad looks loaded with natural leaders and players with experience of World Cup and Heineken Cup finals, as well as dozens of Grand Slam winners. However, the Lions have managed just four tour wins in their history, and there are reasons for this. A trip to the home of the World Cup Champions is likely to test the squad to its very limits. An even temporary loss of focus will prove disastrous for the touring Lions, and, undoubtedly, a solid captain choice is intrinsic to their success.