Owen Farrell was overlooked for the Lions captaincy after Alun Wyn Jones' injury
Warren Gatland has revealed that he did not consider Owen Farrell for the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions because of fears it would expose him to the kind of criticism that he attracted as England captain during this year’s Six Nations Championship.
Gatland, explaining in detail for the first time about the decision to appoint Conor Murray as the successor to Alun Wyn Jones as tour captain, said he did not want to burden the squad with the “potential negativity” that might have accompanied Farrell’s appointment.
Farrell’s leadership and form came under fire during the Six Nations as England finished in fifth place in the championship.
Maro Itoje, who had originally been tipped as a potential tour captain ahead of Jones, was also overlooked because of the desire by Gatland not to add, like Farrell, any “external pressure” on the England lock.
Murray will captain the Lions for the first time against South Africa A in Cape Town on Wednesday night, becoming the sixth player on the tour to do so, with Jamie George the only England player to have been handed that honour so far.
Jones, Ken Owens, Iain Henderson and Stuart Hogg have also led the side during the opening four matches.
Lions team to face South Africa A
Gatland said that even though he felt Farrell would not be bothered by any criticism directed at him, he preferred the England captain, and Itoje, to be able to play without the burden or responsibility of leadership.
The decision appears to have paid off, with Farrell delivering a number of impressive displays before picking up a slight abdominal strain that has ruled him out of Wednesday’s match that is being billed as a ‘fourth Test’ given the strength of the South Africa A side.
“It was almost a little bit like not wanting to put those other two players under external pressure that may have come their way, as much as anything,” Gatland said.
“They’re very vocal and are very much part of our leadership group. So they’ve got important roles.
“I know there was a lot of stuff said and it doesn’t bother Owen at all because he’s such a competitor. He can handle that sort of stuff and the criticism that came to him about the way he led the side, the way he played for England in the Six Nations – he is able to put that stuff behind him.
“But I felt, as a group, I didn’t want him to be exposed to it, at the moment. This is a great group of guys, even though it doesn’t bother him, and I didn’t want other players to see some potential negativity that we didn’t need as a group.”
Owen Farrell (left) has been playing well in the warm-up matches
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Farrell had received the most votes when the squad was asked who they would want to be on the tour leadership group, but Gatland insisted that Murray was the right choice to replace Jones – who suffered a dislocated shoulder in the opening game against Japan – even though he has never captained his province Munster or Ireland.
Jones could yet rejoin the squad this week if he passes a medical on Tuesday after making a remarkable recovery from his injury, but Murray is still likely to captain the side for the first Test against the Springboks on July 24.
“We spoke about a number of potential people,” Gatland said. “You feel that if Conor plays well enough then he’s got a good chance of being involved in the Tests. So that was our thinking.
“There’s a very strong leadership group and we spoke to them about the responsibility of supporting Conor as much as possible.
“Conor is incredibly well-liked as a person and gets on well with everyone in the squad.
“And he’s a different personality to say someone like Alun Wyn or Owen Farrell or Stuart Hogg – and we’re going to need other people on this tour to step up and be captain as well.
“So there was a lot of discussion and debate about that, but it kind of comes down to picking someone with experience who has been there.”
Conor Murray (left) has replaced Alun Wyn Jones as Lions captain
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
Gatland admitted there had been a level of surprise at Murray’s appointment within the squad but that he had their full support.
“In the group there was a positive vibe, but I think it probably took people by surprise,” Gatland added.
“Conor wasn’t a front runner, but I felt it was a really good choice having worked with him on the last couple of tours and just knowing what he was like as a person.
“The way he goes around things and conversations, and he is genuinely interested in what people are doing and their families.
“He is not the most vocal person, but Sam Warburton (Lions captain in 2013 and 2017) wasn’t. It’s about the respect that others have for you as a player and person – that to me is as much about leadership as anything else.
“There are different forms of leadership and style. I think Conor will do a great job, but it is a different scenario as there is a lot more responsibility on that leadership to support him and take the pressure off him.
“So they need to step up, be vocal and drive the standards – and we have had meetings to speak about it.
“It is a different type of situation – Alun Wyn with the esteem he was held in – he probably spoke a bit more, and that changes a bit now, but not in a bad way. Just a different way.”