Was it the correct call to appoint Alun Wyn Jones as British & Irish Lions captain? CRAIG LEWIS and DYLAN JACK debate.
CRAIG LEWIS SAYS YES
The decision on who would captain the British & Irish Lions always looked likely to be a three-way race between Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell. In the end, I am not the least bit surprised that Jones cracked the nod.
Forget his age; he is only 35 years old (Victor Matfield was 38 at the 2015 World Cup), and in this year’s Six Nations Jones proved he is not lacking any motivation or impact as a player. As a leader, there are very few other captains who are so highly regarded in world rugby. Factor in his long-standing relationship with Warren Gatland and his experience of what it takes to tour with and captain the Lions, and it increasingly becomes a no-brainer.
Then there is also an intangible factor, but one I think cannot be underestimated when it comes to this sort of ‘away’ series against the Springboks: his ability to successfully deal with referees.
Just read what recently retired Test referee Nigel Owens had to say when describing his dealings with Jones: ‘He possesses a stature, calm manner and respectful choice of words that we like. The best example of captaincy came last time out in New Zealand when Sam Warburton approached Romain Poite right at the end, used a few subtle words and in doing so a match-winning penalty to the home side became a scrum instead.’
Certainly in that context, it would be a struggle to suggest that Itoje would have been a better bet as captain, particularly considering he has no experience of captaining a team at international level, while the abrasive lock has been guilty of giving away silly penalties in the past. Similarly, Farrell has his own history of indiscretions, and has also been criticised for his manner of dealing with referees.
Jones will naturally command the respect of those around him based on what he has achieved in the game for well over a decade, during which time he has accrued more than 150 Test caps. He has a presence about him, and is undoubtedly the best choice as Lions captain.
DYLAN JACK SAYS NO
While I am in no way surprised that Alun Wyn Jones has been appointed, I can’t help but feel the Lions have missed a trick by snubbing Maro Itoje.
The old adage of coaching is to pick your best team and then pick your captain. Is Jones really still good enough to make it into the starting British & Irish Lions team, one that could go toe-to-toe with the best of the Springboks?
He was not the best performing lock in the 2021 Six Nations. While he deserves his legendary status after a record-setting 157 Test caps, his selection in a Lions starting XV would be one based on sentimentality.
Arguments against Itoje leading the Lions have generally stuck to a common theme: that he is a penalty-merchant whose form would ultimately cost the Lions in such a high-pressure series, where one generally cannot afford to make a mistake.
Against those arguments, I would point to Itoje’s role in the Lions’ 2017 tour of New Zealand, where he was an instrumental figure as the tourists held a world-class All Blacks team to a drawn series.
Itoje is no stranger to a leadership role, having captained his nation to the U20 World Championship title in 2014, where England beat a Junior Springbok side led by Handre Pollard in the final.
Former Lions captain Sam Warburton has also voiced his support for Itoje’s leadership, pointing out that the captaincy is not as much of a burden as one would think.
‘If you walked into the Lions environment in 2017 and asked who was captain, you wouldn’t be sure, because you have about 20 authentic leaders there,’ he said. ‘It is actually the easiest team to captain because you have so many leaders around you.’
Legendary Lions coach Sir Ian McGeechan is another who has supported Itoje’s claim to the crown:
‘He was outstandingly influential in the drawn series with the All Blacks in 2017, growing with every game and really asserting himself in the biggest games. His game involvement is very high, and his discipline is now excellent.
‘When you go to South Africa you have to match their forwards for physicality, and it’s no coincidence that every Lions side to tour South Africa in the past 50 years was captained by second rows – Willie-John McBride in 1974, Bill Beaumont in 1980, Martin Johnson in 1997 and Paul O’Connell in 2009.’
Fair enough, Itoje did concede his share of penalties in the Six Nations, but he has always been one to rise to the challenge. Handing him the responsibility of the captaincy could get the best out of him.