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Rory Best faces a tough battle to be man to help Lions roar

By Jack Austin

One of the most competitive Six Nations in years drew to a close on Saturday with Ireland ending Eddie Jones' unbeaten start to life as England coach and dashing a second world-record run in five months.

Among all the highlights of the last seven weeks has been the form of players vying for a spot in Warren Gatland's British and Irish Lions squad for the tour of New Zealand this summer.

Players such as England's Elliot Daly and Ireland's Garry Ringrose have shot into contention while the more established players like Johnny Sexton have made themselves certainties.

With the raised level of competition comes more contenders for the captaincy, but Gatland insisted at the close of the Championship that he hadn't made a decision and will look for players in form.

"The captaincy is a great honour, but whoever the captain is, there'll be no guarantee he plays," he said. "The captain's form has to be good enough. I think whoever that person is has to rise to that; the message is it's a great honour to captain the Lions but your form has to be good enough to be selected for the Tests.

"When you are looking at a captain, you want to be reasonably confident he is going to be starting. But it is not a guarantee, it is just part of the criteria.

"There's probably half a dozen people but we haven't really narrowed that down yet."

So there are six players Gatland has in mind for leading his Lions against the All Blacks - but who are they?

Rory Best: The way Best led Ireland to ending England's unbeaten run shows that he has the ability to motivate the players around him in tough and gritty situations. He has also captained a side to a win over the All Blacks, the only candidate who is able to say that. The Ulsterman is certainly a viable candidate but the question mark that remains hanging over him is if he is good enough to start at hooker against the All Blacks. Hartley, Best and Wales' Ken Owens are all in with a shout.

Alun Wyn Jones: Jones is probably still the leading candidate for the captaincy, even if his, and Wales', Six Nations was not what they were hoping for. Jones took the Welsh armband from Sam Warburton for the Championship but at times looked uneasy at making a call, such as when he was overruled when Wales opted to go for the corner against Scotland, rather than taking the shot at three points. Jones captained the Lions in the deciding third Test against Australia in 2013 and is a guaranteed starter if fit - something Gatland is keen for his captain to be.

Sam Warburton: Had Wales not finished fifth in the Championship with three defeats, there is a good chance Warburton would have been named player of the tournament. The way he reacted to losing the Wales captaincy and moving to blindside flanker has been phenomenal and he is now the bookies' favourite after his performances and having already led the Lions to a tour victory. Of Warburton's chances, Gatland said: "He's a different captain to some others. He leads by example. He doesn't say a lot but he has had that experience. He's one of the guys in contention." However, he has been so good without the burden of the armband, would giving it to him hinder his performances?

Dylan Hartley: Before his red card for Northampton in December, Hartley was the frontrunner for the armband but now his place on the plane is not even assured. For England, Jamie George has impressed and could usurp his captain over the next 12 months, with Hartley arguably not even the third most impressive hooker the home nations boasted during this year's Six Nations. However, his grit and fire has been one of the reasons for England's success under Jones and it is that sort of personality which could be vital.

Owen Farrell: Farrell was player of the tournament after a stunning Six Nations. His kicking is up there with Leigh Halfpenny's as amongst the best in the world and he has the right mentality of a captain having been schooled under Jones. Farrell looks certain to start at 12 for the Lions and would make a fierce captain. However, having not captained an international side from the start, how would he fare leading the most intense tour the Lions have embarked on? It is a tough challenge for the most weathered of captains, never mind a novice.

Conor Murray: An outside shout for captain but the way he controls the game from around the ruck shows his importance to the Lions. He, like Best, has experience of beating the All Blacks and of a winning Lions Tour (like everyone on this list, other than Hartley). He has captaincy experience but while he was a certain starter a month ago, the performances of Rhys Webb have given Gatland a decision to make. He said he wants to pick his squad first and then his captain and that could go against Murray if Webb is now considered ahead of him.

Belfast Telegraph

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