Alun Wyn Jones has returned to the Lions tour as captain after dislocating his shoulder
Credit: GETTY IMAGES
So far on this tour to South Africa, the role of Lions captain has resembled a game of pass the parcel. From Alun Wyn Jones to Ken Owens (in game at Murrayfield) to Conor Murray later that evening. Then in the South African provincial games it has gone: Stuart Hogg, Iain Henderson, Jamie George, Murray and back to Hogg.
The final shred of wrapping, however, will not be ripped open until the squad for the first Test is announced on Thursday and there is no certainty that any of the above names will be in the starting XV. The Test captaincy is distinct from the tour captaincy which Jones has taken back from Murray, who was happy to step aside. “Conor was the first to admit that he was more than comfortable for Alun Wyn to come back and it’s a measure of him as a person as well as anything,” Gatland said on Saturday night. Then came a slight pause before the kicker. “We’ll see if Alun Wyn Jones is involved, though, or not involved, we’ll see who leads the team.”
If Gatland deems Jones ready to face the Springboks on Saturday then that would be problem solved. Given that he has recovered from a dislocated shoulder in less than three weeks then we can put nothing past the totemic 35-year-old. Yet, since the Six Nations concluded, Jones has played three matches for the Ospreys against the collective might of Newcastle, Scarlets and Dragons; seven minutes against Japan; and 26 minutes against a tiring Stormers team. No matter how great his powers of recovery that does not seem sufficient preparation for 80 minutes of going toe to toe with Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager.
Even before the tour, Gatland warned the tour captain possessed no automatic entry into the team. “Whoever is captain, you need to make sure you have that conversation with them to say: ‘You might be captain on tour but there is no guarantee that you are going to play in the Test matches.’” Gatland said.
There is a precedent here. Four years ago, tour captain Sam Warburton sat on the bench for the first Test against the All Blacks because he was still recovering from a knee injury. The reins were handed – to the surprise of many – to Ireland flanker Peter O’Mahony, who subsequently dropped out of the 23 for the next two Tests.
Will Gatland throw another curveball? In part he may have to because the old adage of the captain must be one of the first names on the teamsheet is difficult to apply when only three or four players are nailed on for the first Test. On form, George and Owens are behind Luke Cowan-Dickie after his rip-roaring performance against the Stormers. Similarly, Ali Price must be considered the front-runner at scrum-half ahead of Murray, who has very little captaincy experience anyway. Hogg faces an almighty battle against Liam Williams at full-back and Henderson is one of six potential second rows vying for two spots.
Conor Murray was made tour captain before Alun Wyn Jones' remarkable recovery
Telegraph Sport also revealed last week that Gatland will not consider Owen Farrell, should he be selected, because of the “potential negativity” following England’s poor Six Nations, nor Maro Itoje, who was the frontrunner for the tour captaincy at the start of the year, to avoid adding “external pressure”. If Jones is not in the XV then options may be thin on the ground.
Does this matter? In a team of experienced internationals, brimming with leadership, the captain can be seen as little more than a figurehead whom the cameras focus on. For all the endless replays of Jim Telfer’s Everest speech, modern professionals need little in the way of Churchilian rallying cries.
Yet, the captain retains one critical function as his team’s conduit to the referee. This is a definite skill that can only be honed with experience. Warburton was never known for delivering tub-thumping teamtalks but he was a superb referee-whisperer, using Jedi-like mind powers to convince Romain Poite to reverse his decision and ensure a drawn series against New Zealand in 2017. Jones, too, exudes respect but total authority around referees. Contrast that with Farrell’s truculent teenager act that wins England few favours with the officials.
With the Tests so finely poised, the series is likely to be decided by one or two marginal refereeing decisions – just as it was four years ago. When Gatland and Springbok director of rugby Rassie Eramsus exchanged barbs about high tackles last week, they were not targeting each other but trying to plant subconscious seeds in the minds of the officiating crew. The Lions Test captain will need to further germinate those thoughts. Which makes Gatland’s choice critical.