Warren Gatland won’t pick England lock Maro Itoje as his British & Irish Lions captain for the eight-match tour of South Africa. But he should, writes Mark Keohane.
Lions coach Gatland, in charge of the Lions 2013 and 2017 visits to Australia and New Zealand respectively, coached Wales for 12 years and is likely to go with seasoned veteran lock Alun Wyn Jones as his tour leader.
England captain Owen Farrell is also a consideration for the Lions touring squad, which will be named on Thursday, 6th May.
In the past week, many arguments have been presented, in print, on audio and on camera as to the folly of entrusting Itoje with the Lions captaincy.
They all have one common theme: Don’t make your best player the captain because the burden may prove too much and could detract from said player’s potency and influence.
Make your best player the captain if he is good enough to lead.
Itoje, for me, is good enough to be that leader and he most certainly is the best lock option that Gatland can select from England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
Currently, Farrell is no certainty to make the Test starting XV, be it at No 10 or at No 12.
Many an international coach has learned the hard way that picking a captain not good enough to make the team is a recipe for disaster.
Wyn Jones, on his last international legs after a record-setting 157 internationals, wasn’t the form lock in the Six Nations and he shouldn’t start the Test series. His best days are behind him and he is playing more on instinct now than inspiration.
The indifferent and inconsistent form of so many players and teams in the Six Nations would have only added to Gatland’s selections. It is tough enough to combine four countries and turn them into a united team, but it is near impossible when there is so much fluctuation in performance from all four teams.
Wales won the Six Nations, but in three of their victories they had a one player advantage for half the matches. The championship-winning campaign would have looked decidedly different had it been a XV-on-XV contest for 80-plus minutes.
Farrell and Wyn Jones were powerful performers in the Lions drawn Test series against the All Blacks in New Zealand in 2017. Again, one has to put into perspective the series result. The All Blacks hammered the Lions in Auckland in the first Test, led up until the 70th minute of the second Test, despite Sonny Bill Williams’s red card in the 23rd minute, and scored two tries to nil in the 15-all drawn third Test. The Lions, in the series, led a match only once, and that was in Wellington’s second Test when they took the lead in the 77th minute.
The series could also have been that of the All Blacks if a penalty awarded in injury time of the third Test was not overturned and ruled a scrum feed.
The post mortem of the Lions to New Zealand, with five tour wins from 10 starts, wouldn’t have been as easy on the eye for the men in red.
What wouldn’t have read any differently is any reflection of Itoje’s tour and three-Test performance. He was comfortably the best forward on either side and he has consistently been among the game’s elite second rowers.
He is big, athletic, strong and commands as much respect from the opposition as he does his Saracens club and England teammates.
Springboks lock Eben Etzebeth, in a recent interview, raved about the qualities of Itoje.
‘What hype?’ asked Etzebeth. ‘He’s world class and one of the best in the game. I’ve played against him several times and have huge respect for him as a player.’
The Kiwi players said a similar thing in 2017. So did the New Zealand rugby public, who aren’t afraid to admit when an opposition player has the beating of their very own.
Former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan, in appointing Ireland’s Paul O’Connell to captain the Lions to South Africa in 2009, felt it important that the leader of the Lions didn’t look up to the captain of the Springboks at the coin toss but looked him squarely in the eye.
McGeechan felt O’Connell was the best lock option to start and also a wonderful leader of men.
Itoje is the best lock option for the Lions in 2021 and he will have no concerns about having to physically look up to anyone at a coin toss.
Pick your best team and then pick your captain. McGeechan shares a similar view of Itoje.
When you assess the captaincy options available to Gatland, not one of the current four home unions respective captains is certain to start the Test series.
I’d love to see Itoje lead the Lions against Siya Kolisi’s world champion Springboks and the rugby romantic in me would also delight in South African-born and raised winger Duhan van der Merwe making the Lions squad.
Van der Merwe, a former SA under 21 star, is the brother of Springboks hooker Akker van der Merwe, with the former sensational for Scotland in the past six months, having scored eight tries in 10 Tests.
Imagine a black man leading the British & Irish Lions out against the Springboks in South Africa and a Van der Merwe following him in red jersey.
Wow, that alone, would make this Test series one with a difference to any other Lions tour to South Africa.
*This article appeared on IOL.
Also on www.keo.co.za