Who should captain the Lions? We get an expert view
'The authority of a Lions captain must be self-evident – readily perceptible even at a distance.'
Warren Gatland will announce his British & Irish Lions squad, to tour South Africa, this Thursday and, with it, confirm the identity of the man he has already picked as captain.
There has been much talk, over the weekend, about Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones getting the nod, but nothing will be certain until you see blurry mobile phone images of said captain posing in a full Lions kit - with a toy Lion tucked under his arm - at the venue for the squad announcement.
Before Dr. John William Devine, Lecturer in Sports Ethics and Integrity at Swansea University, gives his take on the qualities to lead the Lions, here is what two vastly experienced captains had to say on the task at hand:
SAM WARBURTON: I think Warren will want Maro Itoje to be primed and ready to go because he’s one of the players who will be a guaranteed Test starter and I was extremely impressed with him in 2017... A lot of the other captaincy candidates are a little bit older and I’d question whether there’d be too much pressure to get through a tour like this at the end of the season.
RORY BEST: For me at the minute, if you're looking at the guys who are playing the best, it's probably Alun Wyn Jones in terms of not just playing individually, but the impact he has as a leader... The big advantage he has, is that he's used to working with Warren Gatland. They know each other really well, he's captained loads of times under him and that's a really big thing, to have that coach and captaincy relationship.
With that in mind, here is Dr. Devine on what it will take to lead players from four nations into as stiff a task as exists in Test rugby.
The art of captaincy is dying. Professional sport has developed so that coaches prescribe exhaustive game plans that address almost every eventuality, and communications technology facilitates a continuous stream of messages from the coaches’ box to the playing field.
In football, captaincy is now largely symbolic; in American football, captaincy is often honorific where teams appoint up to six captains; and, in basketball, teams often don’t appoint captains at all.
In contrast, captaincy in rugby union remains a substantive leadership role. The most coveted captaincy role in men’s rugby is of the British and Irish Lions. Once every four years, the best players from Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales play as the Lions in a three-match test series against one of the best Southern Hemisphere rugby nations – New Zealand, South Africa, or Australia. This summer, it is the turn of South Africa, reigning World Cup champions. The Lions squad will be announced on May 6 and the big question is who will be unveiled as tour captain.
The Six Nations produced no stand-out candidate. Alun Wyn Jones, captain of the champions, Wales, will be pushed hard to secure a place on the Lions team in the hotly contested second row position. The other main contenders, Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje, both underperformed (by their high standards) and were part of an English team that finished second from bottom. In the absence of a presumptive candidate, what qualities should Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland seek in the leading contenders?
1. Sporting Judgement
A captain is, first and foremost, a decision-maker. During a match, they determine what option should be selected when a penalty is awarded, how their team should implement its game plan, and whether the time has come to switch from Plan A to Plan B.
This requires impeccable sporting judgement – the ability to see beyond the playbook to grasp the particular demands of the contest. It involves the possession of ‘antennae’ to detect subtle shifts in momentum, to perceive the horizon of possibility within a match, and to ‘zero-in’ on just the right play for the given moment.
In contrast to the slavish implementation of a game plan, sporting judgement is the ability to adapt to the demands of an unfolding contest in a way that both makes the most of the team’s abilities and exploits the opposition’s weaknesses as they have revealed themselves, and might reveal themselves, on that day.
2. The Athlete-Advocate
Aside from taking decisions on behalf of the team, the captain serves as their advocate to the referee. In rugby, the captain alone can ask the referee to explain their decisions, argue with the referee about the correct interpretation of the laws, and bring to the referee’s attention infractions they might have overlooked.
This lawyerly dimension of captaincy requires a deep knowledge of the laws of the game, the self-awareness to gauge the referee’s response to one’s interventions, and the nous to pose one’s questions and to phrase one’s submissions in just the right way. However, this access is at the referee’s discretion. So, the captain must walk a tightrope between ensuring that lines of communication remain open and challenging the referee to adjudicate in their team’s favour.
Such advocacy was pivotal in the final moments of the deciding test against New Zealand during the last Lions tour in 2017. A penalty for offside was awarded to New Zealand with two minutes left, and the resulting kick would almost certainly have ensured an All Blacks victory in the game and the series.
When the referee awarded the penalty, Lions captain Sam Warburton politely asked the referee to seek confirmation of his decision through video review.
When the Television Match Official confirmed that a penalty should be awarded, Warburton subtly delayed the referee’s explanation of his decision, thereby creating time for doubt to grow in the referee’s mind that, ultimately, led him to overturn the penalty and award only a scrum, apparently in contravention of the game’s laws.
Indeed, it is this ability to build a rapport with referees that Gatland cited as his chief reason for selecting Warburton as Lions captain for the first time, in 2013
3. The Charismatic Captain
Finally, the captain plays a central role in unifying the team around a common purpose and motivating them to elevated levels of performance. This is true of any rugby captain, but Lions captaincy presents a distinctive challenge in this regard.
The Lions squad comprises players drawn from four rival nations who have been joined together for a single tour on the other side of the world. A large squad with a seven-week lifespan is not conducive to a leadership style dependant on close personal bonds or subtle nuances that can be appreciated only over a sustained period. Instead, the authority of a Lions captain must be self-evident – readily perceptible even at a distance.
It is, perhaps, unsurprising that many of the most celebrated Lions captains such as Willie John McBride, Martin Johnson, and Paul O’Connell have been physically imposing figures who carried a natural authority:
Moreover, a style of captaincy that is ineffective at club or national level may be perfect for a Lions tour. While teammates may grow weary of weekly rousing speeches from a club captain, a three-match Lions Test Series is ripe for an elevated inspirational tone that is effective in short bursts.
Discipline will be important, but the Lions will have to match the Springboks’ aggression. This tour more than any other may be a moment for a charismatic, inspirational leader.
Leading the Lions is not a straightforward extension of captaining club and country. Lions captaincy remains a consequential role, not reduced to symbolism or ceremony. This enduring significance reminds us that leadership still counts among the sporting excellences.
If we can arrest the trend towards micro-management by coaches, and the associated declining influence of captains, then sport can remain a place where athletes cultivate the skills and virtues of responsible leaders.
Whoever is ultimately chosen to lead the Lions, here’s hoping for a test series win that showcases, and revives, the complex art of captaincy.
- By Dr. John William Devine