Brian O’Driscoll could yet be the diplomatic choice for Lions’ captain
With his return to fitness Paul O’Connell could be in with a shout as well
Brian O’Driscoll: Lions captain in 2005
Paul O’Connell: Lions captain four years ago
Unlike for previous Lions’ squad selections, Warren Gatland has afforded himself and his fellow coaches additional time before finalising their 37-man squad on April 30th, which will follow the Heineken Cup semi-finals as opposed to the quarter-final weekend. And whereas in times past most people would probably have agreed on a core of six, seven or eight of a putative starting XV, the situation appears a good deal more fluid this time.
The main beneficiaries of this slight delay in finalising the Lions squad may be those returning from injury, all the more so if they have a Heineken Cup quarter-final and, better still, a semi-final to showcase their complete recovery and well-being. Even wearing green-tinged glasses, falling uppermost into this category is assuredly Paul O’Connell.
We may, of course, be jumping the gun here, and O’Connell himself long since placed himself out of contention, but a continuing injury-free, upward graph in his performance levels from the benchmark established last Saturday over the next four weeks would surely strengthen the case for his inclusion.
He is coming from a long way behind other locks such as Alun-Wyn Jones, Ian Evans, Geoff Parling, Jim Hamilton, Joe Launchbury and others based on form this season and specifically in the Six Nations. Then again, he is also ahead of them based on his previous Lions exploits.
O’Connell toured with the 2005 Lions to New Zealand, where he was one of only two Lions players to play every minute of all three Test matches, bar 10 minutes he spent in the sin-bin, and again played every minute as captain four years ago. That’s serious pedigree, akin to Martin Johnson when he retained the captaincy in 2001 to Australia.
Opinions vary as to O’Connell’s captaincy four years ago, with some pundits citing the Test series result as evidence he was perhaps not the best choice, but the loss of the series had little to do with O’Connell’s leadership and much more to do with the selection for the first Test – especially the tight five.
Even in the immediate aftermath of the test series, Martyn Williams was amongst those who said O’Connell was the best captain he ever played under, and as one of the coaching assistants, Gatland was an admirer too. Perhaps making him captain would be a bit too much of a risk, but O’Connell must have a chance of making the cut.
Again wearing green-tinted glasses, another Irish “veteran” must come into the captaincy mix, namely Brian O’Driscoll. As a three-time Lion who captained the tourists in 2005 to New Zealand, he too has serious pedigree. Gatland has been at pains to tell anyone who’ll listen the Lions captain may not necessarily play in the Test series, which is fair enough as the other leading candidates, Wales’ Sam Warburton and England’s Chris Robshaw, wouldn’t be assured of their places in the Test XV either.
Viewed in that light then, the case for making such a legendary and statesmanlike figure as O’Driscoll captain is all the stronger. If it comes to pass that the tour captain is not chosen to start in the Tests then better someone who can set aside the disappointment of not being picked for the greater good. And a player with previous experience of touring with the Lions is probably more likely to do that.
That aside, being able to draw upon the unique experience that comes with being a Lion would be hugely beneficial for any would-be captain. A first-time tourist as captain not sure of starting the Tests would be a tough ask. It is true Warburton, understandably seen as the favourite, has a strong chance of starting the Tests and is a polished, impressive and articulate leader, who has experience of working with Gatland as captain of Wales’ World Cup semi-finalists in New Zealand two years ago.
However, the last time the Lions went for a captain on his first Lions tour was Finlay Calder in the 1989 trek to Australia, a tour which came six years after the trip to New Zealand. In 1993 Gavin Hastings led the Lions in New Zealand, having played in all three Tests four years previously. Johnson captained the last Lions squad to win a Test series, in South Africa in 1997, having played in the second and third Tests in ’93 after being called up as a late replacement for Wade Dooley four years beforehand. After Johnson again in 2001 came O’Driscoll, the hero of the ’01 tour, in ’05, and cue O’Connell four years ago.
There’s a pattern here and it makes sense. Of course, we in Ireland would desperately love to see our greatest player bookend his stellar career by captaining the Lions on his fourth tour, but just as pertinently after three losing Test series nobody would strive harder to make it a winning series than O’Driscoll.
Furthermore, Gatland is the Wales coach and an adopted Welshman, who has brought in two of the English coaches, Graham Rowntree and Andy Farrell, while a Scot, Andy Irvine, is manager. Although it probably isn’t a major concern of his, if O’Driscoll is captain, Gatland would also ensure a diplomatic balance to the leadership ticket.
O’Driscoll also has a little experience of Test captaincy, with 84 Tests (including one for the Lions) the most in the history of the game, so it would not be a burden on him, and, leaving a legacy for four years hence, the 24-year-old Warburton could be named as vice-captain.
PS: Facing into retirement is bad enough without having reports of their retirement prematurely foisted upon them, and so Marcus Horan could have done without us mistakenly listing him amongst those who have retired since the 2009 Grand Slam in these pages last Saturday.
Marcus is, of course, very much active and still playing.