Warburton has earned right to be Lion king again in New Zealand
On Wednesday next head coach Warren Gatland will announce his British and Irish Lions squad for 2017. Central to that eagerly awaited presentation will be the unveiling of the player chosen to lead the Lions on the greatest adventure but equally the most difficult tour of all.
There was a time when South Africa shared that status and indeed when Four Nation Tours to either the Rainbow Republic or to the Land of the Long White Cloud were just three years apart. Now of course it’s much shorter with Australia a third port of call although in my view still nowhere near strong enough to support a full Lions tour programme.
The inclusion of the Wallabies in their own right means that when the Lions touch down in any one of the Big Southern Hemisphere 3 it is at the end of the now accepted 12 year cycle. To become a Lion is the ultimate rugby honour in this part of the world but to be nominated as captain exceeds that again. It is limited to an elite group of exceptional quality.
There have been 29 tour captains in the 29 official tours to date and Ireland has contributed a fair share. Think Tom Smyth, Sammy Walker, Karl Mullen, Robin Thompson, Ronnie Dawson, Tommy Kiernan, Willie John McBride, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell and you’ve got the drift.
In becoming the 10th Irish captain in 2009, then Head coach Ian McGeechan made no bones about wanting O’Connell, his chosen leader, to be a warrior with natural instincts central to that role. It is a view and by extension a core criterion I share.
All things being equal I like my captain to be positioned at the heart of the team or more specifically wearing any number between six and nine inclusive. McBride, a lock, is considered the greatest Lions captain of all while Fitzgerald, a hooker, was unequivocally the most complete captain I played under bar none.
My Lions touring experience was under Billy Beaumont - another lock - and he too was exceptional in every way. He was a natural, a great communicator who pulled no punches but commanded total respect. All 14 provincial games on that tour of South Africa were won but because the Springboks took the test series 3-1 Beaumont never got remotely close to the credit he deserved. Such are the fine lines between immortality (McBride) and ‘just another captain’ (Beaumont) to the wider public.
I have many times extolled the virtues of Fitzgerald the captain despite him doing so from the middle of the front row blind to everything happening outside the scrum. Fitzgerald had all the obvious traits, indeed I would compare him in many ways with O’Connell despite never having had the privilege of sharing a changing room with the Munster lock at the helm.
When Fitzy spoke, a pin dropped, his eyes oozed passion, his ears smoked. The groundwork had been laid in the days leading up to any big game when he spoke to EVERY squad member individually.
When I say spoke, he listened and gauged the mood of the individual. In that interpersonal relationship he established in his own mind what buttons he could press and how far he could go in motivational terms at team meetings and in the dressing room just prior to kick off.
It didn’t happen by chance, he worked at it and on match day put himself in position to press the collective button that embraced the many and varied personalities and differing temperaments in the room. But more than anything when he looked at you eye to eye and told you what he expected, you knew for certain that he was demanding nothing of you that he didn’t demand or wouldn’t deliver of himself.
He was the consummate team leader.
To this day I find it extremely sad and equally unfair that when great Lions leaders are discussed the name C F Fitzgerald is not central to such debate. Sadly with two provincial defeats and a four-nil series whitewash his tour to New Zealand in 1983 was the original from hell.
The media contention right from his nomination as captain by tour manager McBride and coach Jim Telfer (warriors and leaders both) was that he was not the best hooker in the party (Colin Deans was deemed to have a better throw) and therefore should not have been made captain given the doubt over his position within the test side. The easiest of targets he was made the scapegoat.
But I guess therein lies a lesson as the most demanding tour of all comes realistically into view. No player can be assured his test place — form is temporary and all that — but at the time of squad selection his place in the run-on 15 in the opening test must be uppermost in the coach’s mind.
There must also be a relationship built on trust and mutual respect between coach and captain. That is paramount.
The likely candidates? Rory Best (parallel with Fitzgerald but experience may tell against him), Dylan Hartley (not as captain but still worth a tour place), Owen Farrell (possible bolter) but it’s Sam Warburton or Alun Wynn Jones with Warburton for me.