Li­ons’ lack of a stand­out leader hasn’t helped Gat­land’s cause

Irish Examiner - Sport - - RUGBY - Bren­dan O’brien

War­ren Gat­land has taken all sorts of flak for all sorts of stuff this week but no-one can say the Li­ons head coach didn’t put ev­ery­one on no­tice when it came to po­ten­tial on-field lead­ers and the pos­si­bil­ity that his skip­per could be wear­ing an arm­band one week and a crested blazer and tie the next.

“The cap­taincy is a great hon­our but, who­ever the cap­tain is go­ing to be, there’ll be no guar­an­tee he plays in the Tests,” he said back in March. “His form has to be good enough. Who­ever that per­son is has to rise to that. The mes­sage to that per­son is: it’s a great hon­our to cap­tain the Li­ons but your form has to be good enough to be se­lected for the Tests.”

To­mor­row won’t be Peter O’ma­hony’s first ex­pe­ri­ence of watch­ing on from the side­lines as a team he skip­pered one week goes about its busi­ness the next. He had just turned 24 back in Oc­to­ber of 2013 when, af­ter suf­fer­ing a blow to the head at home to Le­in­ster, he was omit­ted from the Mun­ster squad for their Heineken Cup opener away to Ed­in­burgh.

“It is a tough place to be but we’ve plenty of se­nior play­ers in the group who are well able to speak and cap­tain sides and lead a Mun­ster team,” he said a few days af­ter a painful 29-23 loss at Mur­ray­field. “It is a tough place to be when you are seen as a leader but you can’t re­ally pipe up if you haven’t got an ac­tion to do.”

That sense of help­less­ness will be mul­ti­plied ten­fold this week. O’ma­hony isn’t the first elite sportsper­son to suf­fer the awk­ward­ness that comes with this lat­est change in for­tunes. For a start, plenty of hurlers and foot­ballers have been given the hon­our of cap­tain­ing a county by their clubs down the years only to find their in­put re­stricted to a sup­port­ing role from beyond the favoured 15.

Pro­fes­sional foot­ball has given us lots more ex­am­ples: from Brazil’s Rai, who was dropped and re­placed as cap­tain by Dunga at the 1994 World Cup, to Wayne Rooney, who was still tech­ni­cally the al­pha male in Eng­land’s pack when Gareth South­gate sum­moned the courage lack­ing in his pre­de­ces­sors and con­fined the Manch­ester United player to the bench last year.

You could, of course, ar­gue that O’ma­hony’s de­mo­tion has been un­duly harsh.

His per­for­mance at the li­ne­out in Auck­land last week has been held up in his de­fence. So too has Sam War­bur­ton’s lack of im­pact off the bench in that 30-15 loss, as well as the Welsh­man’s strug­gles for form and fit­ness in re­cent months, but the switch is em­blem­atic of an is­sue that has haunted the Li­ons for far too long now.

We were told that this was the best pre­pared and most tal­ented Li­ons squad to leave these shores in mod­ern times. That Gat­land had cho­sen a squad on the back of what had been an impressive Six Na­tions tour­na­ment and that Ire­land had struck an early blow by blood­y­ing the All Blacks’ noses in Chicago last Novem­ber.

Yet, where were, and are, the stand­out lead­ers?

There are men of ex­cep­tional char­ac­ter and tal­ent in Gat­land’s squad right now but none pos­sess both the mix of req­ui­site lead­er­ship qual­i­ties and the sort of world-class form and status of a Martin John­son, a Brian O’driscoll, a Paul O’con­nell or even a War­bur­ton when the Welsh­man was play­ing at the peak of his pow­ers.

Ed­die Jones summed this deficit up in a round­about way back in April when sug­gest­ing that the re­spec­tive cap­tains of Ire­land, Eng­land, Scot­land, and Wales should be ap­pointed to a sort of in­terim lead­er­ship group. “Then, af­ter the warm-up games, who­ever was the lead­ing player I would make cap­tain for the first Test,” he told ESPN.

Sub­se­quent events blew a few holes in that the­ory. Dy­lan Hartley didn’t even make the squad, Greig Laidlaw only got to travel when Ben Youngs dropped out due to fam­ily rea­sons and nei­ther Rory Best nor Alun Wyn Jones have made the sort of im­pact on tour that ab­so­lutely de­manded even their in­clu­sion in the Test side.

In 1973, the rugby writer JGB Thomas said it was up to a cap­tain to main­tain stan­dards, “keep their com­mit­tees happy, ap­pease the sup­port­ers’ clubs, at­tend all train­ing ses­sions, study the op­po­si­tion, make diplo­matic speeches and be above re­proach them­selves”. Some of those tasks have gone and been re­placed by oth­ers but the cen­tral­ity of the role re­mains.

Cap­tains are ful­crums, rocks that pro­vide the foun­da­tions on which teams are built, and it is hard not to look on from afar at the Li­ons’ scram­ble for a stand­out skip­per and not think that it has played some part in un­der­min­ing what it is they are try­ing to do in New Zealand and how they go about do­ing it.

And it is dif­fi­cult to blame Gat­land for that.

Pic­ture: Stephen Mc­carthy

Bri­tish and Irish Li­ons play­ers Sam War­bur­ton, left, and Peter O’ma­hony face the New Zealand haka prior to last Satur­day’s first test match in Auck­land. We were told that this was the best-pre­pared and most tal­ented Li­ons squad to leave these shores in...

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