>> Gus­cott: Mur­ray or Alun-Wyn my cap­tains

The Rugby Paper - - Front Page - JEREMYGUSCOTT

“Mur­ray is my left-field choice as Lions cap­tain - he’s the full pack­age as a skil­ful, phys­i­cal scrum-half”

WHO should War­ren Gat­land pick as cap­tain? It is one of the most dif­fi­cult selections the 2017 Lions head coach will make, and it is ar­guably the most im­por­tant be­cause the cap­tain sets the tone for the tour in so many ways.

There are strong cases to be made for Alun-Wyn Jones, Rory Best, Dy­lan Hart­ley, Sam War­bur­ton, and, for me, also Conor Mur­ray. But, just as there are very few play­ers who would be nailed on in a cur­rent World XV – with no Bri­tish team dom­i­nat­ing that se­lec­tion in the way New Zealand did when Dan Carter and Richie McCaw were in their prime – it is the same open field when it comes to se­lect­ing the Lions cap­tain.

It is clear from Gat­land’s pre­vi­ous faith in War­bur­ton and Jones, for Wales and for the 2013 Lions in Aus­tralia, that they have tried and tested re­la­tion­ships. How­ever, we don’t know as much about how the other can­di­dates rub along with the head coach, and nor do we know which of them he con­sid­ers to be out­stand­ing tourists.

What we do know is that the Lions cap­tain is some­one who can be se­ri­ous when he needs to be, but who knows when to have a good laugh to re­lieve the pres­sure, and can also rise above it so that the tour is not only great fun but a fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence for the en­tire squad. Be­fore that, of course, he has to com­mand his place in the Test start­ing line-up and be in­spi­ra­tional in lead­ing from the front.

When I think back to my first Lions tour in 1989 the big pre-tour ques­tion was whether Fin­lay Calder was the right cap­tain be­cause Andy Robin­son was seen as the form open­side. But Robin­son was in­jured when we first went out to Aus­tralia, and Calder proved to be a great leader of men as well as an out­stand­ing flanker – he played as well as he talked.

In 1993 it was a two horse race be­tween Gavin Hast­ings and Will Car­ling, and Gavin was a first choice full-back who com­manded his place – so there were no ques­tions over whether he was the right man to lead us against the All Blacks.

Be­fore the 1997 tour to South Africa you had Keith Wood, Ieuan Evans and Rob Wain­wright in con­tention along­side Martin John­son. De­spite those op­tions it was right to pick John­son, even though at the time he was only cap­tain of Le­ices­ter, and it proved to be a great choice.

In my ex­pe­ri­ence the most in­spi­ra­tional cap­tains are forwards, and that seems to be the case in most modern teams. How­ever, scrum-halves also have a unique lead­er­ship role be­cause they can feel the heart­beat of the team as the link be­tween forwards and backs.

Mur­ray has been the out­stand­ing scrum-half in Europe for a num­ber of sea­sons and, although Peter O’Ma­hony is Mun­ster’s in­cum­bent cap­tain, Mur­ray has also led his prov­ince. I’ve heard Mur­ray in­ter­viewed, and ap­par­ently he’s a re­luc­tant cap­tain and leader when it comes to the me­dia role – but that should not rule him out. I have never heard of a scrum-half who is short of things to say – you can­not have a mute scrum-half – be­cause they are talk­ing all the time on the field. The Ire­land No.9 is no ex­cep­tion.

Mur­ray is no shrink­ing vi­o­let, and is the full pack­age to me as a skil­ful, phys­i­cal scrum-half who has earned the Lions start­ing role. That means a big in­volve­ment on and off the pitch, and his only area of in­ex­pe­ri­ence is he has not led an in­ter­na­tional side. That was the same with John­son when he was ap­pointed Lions cap­tain in 1997, so we’ve seen it hap­pen be­fore, and it’s worked.

Hart­ley’s tem­per­a­ment at in­ter­na­tional level has not let him down since he was made Eng­land cap­tain by Ed­die Jones, and his set-piece work is top drawer. Where Hart­ley is less in­flu­en­tial is around the field, be­cause he doesn’t hurt you as a car­rier. The Eng­land hooker plugs the gap with hard graft in terms of tack­les and clear-outs, but to be Lions cap­tain he may need the up­grade of mak­ing an im­pact as a ball­car­rier.

Best is the other hooker in lead­er­ship con­tention, and he has the ad­van­tage of cap­tain­ing an Ire­land side which has beaten the All Blacks this sea­son. I like the Ul­ster­man’s honesty, and the way he has taken on the lead­er­ship role so suc­cess­fully af­ter the Ir­ish lost big fig­ures like Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Con­nell.

Best con­trib­utes strongly around the pitch, and wins im­por­tant turn-overs. His car­ry­ing and off-load­ing can also be im­pres­sive, although on the debit side there are still the oc­ca­sional way­ward line-out throws and we’ve seen him sat down in con­tact a cou­ple of times in the Six Na­tions.

Jones has dis­played tremen­dous con­sis­tency in re­cent years, and has such high stan­dards that a poor game for him is a good game for a lot of other locks. He is con­stantly con­tribut­ing, and his power-plays have fre­quently been cru­cial for Wales, and for the Lions, as co-cap­tain with War­bur­ton in the se­ries win over Aus­tralia four years ago.

Jones has few weak­nesses and has a hard phys­i­cal­ity about him that puts him at the front of a highly com­pet­i­tive sec­ond row queue. The only lock who might have a slight edge on him is Ge­orge Kruis, be­cause of his ex­tra­or­di­nary mo­bil­ity and im­pres­sive line-out work. Saracens have a pos­si­ble seven more games, and if he can play in five of those he will be up to speed for the tour – and a fit Kruis is mas­sive.

Pair­ing him with Jones, who has the in­valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence of two pre­vi­ous tours, and is very streetwise in switching-on quickly to what ref­er­ees al­low, could be a huge boost for the Lions pack.

War­bur­ton has the wind be­hind him in the cap­taincy stakes, not least be­cause the Welsh open­side flanker made a sig­nif­i­cant lead­er­ship im­pact in 2013 be­fore he was in­jured. How­ever, it would be a sur­prise if he got into the start­ing line-up at blind­side – where he played for Wales in the Six Na­tions – be­cause CJ Stander has been sewn into the Lions shirt on form this sea­son.

So, War­bur­ton is back at 7 – and with Stander at 6 and Billy Vu­nipola at 8, that is a back row with a good bal­ance. There are other strong chal­lengers to War­bur­ton for the open­side shirt, with Sean O’Brien, Justin Tipuric, James Haskell and Hamish Wat­son also in the frame.

My main hes­i­ta­tion with War­bur­ton is that he is just a bit too in­jury prone, prompt­ing con­cerns that he might not last the course in New Zealand. The ques­tion is one of sus­tain­abil­ity. Can War­bur­ton stay fit long enough to put the Lions in a win­ning po­si­tion?

South Africa in 2009 was a bru­tal se­ries in terms of its thump­ing phys­i­cal­ity. New Zealand in 2017 will be bru­tal in an up-tempo fizz-bang-wal­lop way, and although the in­juries to Jones and War­bur­ton do not bother me in terms of them be­ing fit to tour, this squad will have to be ready to fire from the start.

Mur­ray is my left-field choice as cap­tain, while Hart­ley and Best are both ques­tion-mark calls be­cause nei­ther hooker is a def­i­nite starter. That leaves the two Welsh can­di­dates.

War­bur­ton does not jump out at me as a cap­tain like Jones, even though there would be lit­tle neg­a­tive com­ment if ei­ther man was selected. It puts you in a quandary be­cause War­bur­ton is the man in pos­ses­sion and a good choice, and if he is fit and fir­ing he will be a huge plus to the Lions cause – but my banker choice for 2017 Lions cap­tain is Alun-Wyn Jones.

PIC­TURE: Getty Images

Top can­di­date: Wales sec­ond row Alun-Wyn Jones

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