Warren Gatland mentions three Irish players as potential Lions captain
"I got a load of criticism about leaving Brian O'Driscoll out, at that stage, and that I was anti-Irish."
Ah, that 2013 tour to Australia. Good times. Warren Gatland joins us from his pad in New Zealand with a nifty, and very official, Lions back-drop in his living room. All the sponsors are happy, and Gats has something to stop a draft getting in.
There are over 30 of us on the Zoom call with the British & Irish Lions head coach, on the same day the 2021 Canterbury jersey is dropped, and reporters from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are flying their flags with their various lines of questioning.
- From Wales - How can we get better before you pick your squad next summer, and will Alun Wyn Jones be involved?
- From England - How can you secure the early release of players from Premiership clubs, how about that Joe Simmonds lad and surely Maro Itoje is nailed on for tour captain?
- From Scotland - Can you deny previous reports that you've got something against Scottish players?
And then there's Ireland. Despite the fact that Andy Farrell's side sit a point clear of England and France, going into the final weekend of the Guinness Six Nations, there are not as many player-specific questions. Right now, one suspects Irish supporters would be happy with between eight and 10 of their players in next summer's Lions squad.
As we saw back in 2017, Gatland is not averse to having his mind changed late in the game. Peter O'Mahony would probably have missed out on the entire touring squad were it not for the back injury that saw Jamie Heaslip ruled out of a Six Nations clash with England, in Dublin. As it transpired, O'Mahony was drafted into the starting XV, had a stormer, made the squad and ended up captaining the Lions in the First Test against the All Blacks.
So, when Gatland says his captaincy decision will be made late enough in the process, you must give him the benefit of the doubt.
"You look at lots of factors. You look at strength in depth in certain positions. You want the captain, if their form is good enough - and there are never any guarantees - to be one of your players in the Test team... You have to have that honest conversation with the captain and say, 'You'll be selected as tour captain but there's no guarantee you'll be selected in the Test side'."
Right now, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell would be favourites to get the captaincy nod, but Gatland name-dropped a few Irish players too.
"I don't know if I could rattle of the names of potential captains," Gatland says, before doing just that.
"Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Maro Itoje, James Ryan, Justin Tipuric, Conor Murray, Johnny Sexton, Owen Farrell, George Ford, Jonathan Davies, Stuart Hogg, Stuart McInally, Fraser Brown."
Former Ireland and Lions captain Paul O'Connell has already named Ryan and Sexton as players he feels are "nailed-on" to make the touring squad, so to hear them named as potential captains is a further boon.
It is interesting to hear Conor Murray in that list of potential captains, but Gatland does rate the scrumhalf very highly and brought him on the 2013 and 2017 tours. On Sexton, Gatland says he would have no issues bringing an outhalf who would be 36 next summer on tour with him.
"It's not about the future, it's about the here and now," says Gatland.
"Johnny has managed himself really well and this autumn it will be interesting to see how Ireland do in terms of that. Then obviously the (2021) Six Nations. Probably, for Johnny, his biggest challenge in recent years is being able to string a number of games together. He's had niggles and knocks, and a few head knocks as well.
"That's where we will be looking at it from. There's no doubt about his experience and leadership and his qualities as a player. When I look back on that 2017 tour, he didn't have the greatest start but then came back well. That's what world-class players do."
Warren Gatland was speaking on behalf of Canterbury at the launch of the British & Irish Lions Pro jersey available at Canterbury.com
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Season 3 has returned with Ian Madigan & Eimear Considine as hosts. You can catch up on all our episodes from past seasons and interviews with Conrad Smith, Victor Matfield, Simon Zebo, Sean O'Brien, Drew Mitchell, Jean De Villiers, Finn Russell, Mike Brown, Brian O'Driscoll, Tana Umaga and much, much more.