With Warren Gatland confirmed as coach, all focus is now on who will be named as captain of the British and Irish Lions’ tour of New Zealand.
“Dylan has obviously matured and he’s done a great job with England,” said Gatland at his unveiling as coach. “Eddie rates him incredibly highly and he has a lot of respect from the players as well. He hasn’t been suspended for a while, either, so that’s another big tick against his name. Hopefully he’ll continue in that vein.”
After missing the succesful 2013 tour of Australia due to, you guessed it, suspension, Hartley is now the obvious choice to start the first Test against his native New Zealand at hooker, and among the favourites to be named captain. The Northampton Saint cannot afford to be a sinner this season, but his combative edge will be required if the Lions are to have any chance of succeeding against the All Blacks.
Should England continue their upward trajectory under the tutelage of Eddie Jones, than Gatland may be left with no choice but to opt for Hartley.
After captaining the Lions to series victory four years ago, Warburton is the logical choice to continue in the role, especially considering his ties with Gatland within the Wales set-up.
However, the flanker went into the 2013 tour as an injury doubt – and missed the third Test decider – and his fitness has remained a problem over the last couple of seasons. The 27-year-old also faces competition from Ireland’s Sean O’Brien and fellow countryman Justin Tupiric for the number seven shirt, while James Haskell was in the form of his career before his untimely toe injury.
Warburton needs a strong Six Nations to retain the captaincy. His battle against England and Dylan Hartley could go a long way towards determining Gatland’s choice.
Alun Wyn Jones
Warburton may have captained the previous tour but it was Jones who led the side to the all-important victory in the third Test. The second-row has taken over from Paul O’Connell as the revered figure in the engine room, and few players in the Northern Hemisphere are as consistently excellent at international level.
England have a crop of up-and-coming locks but Jones will be aiming to prove who remains boss when they visit the Millenium Stadium on February 11.
Having toured in 2009 and 2013, the 30-year-old is likely to be one of the most experienced players in the party, and his reputation as a fierce competitor will ensure he is part of Gatland’s thoughts.
Six Nations performances are likely to prove crucial when Gatland comes to considering big calls, and Ireland are due a big year after an underwhelming 18 months in which they were blown away by Argentina in the World Cup and won only two of their matches in this year’s tournament.
It is still a squad packed full of talent and with the carrot of potential Lions selection dangled in front of them, one which could be set for a big year.
Should Ireland upset the England and Wales apple cart then Best will come into consideration. The hooker is an experienced campaigner and perhaps significantly, is much less likely to produce a moment of madness than Hartley.
Undoubtedly a gamble, but as things stands Itoje’s meteoric rise has shown no signs of stopping. The 21-year-old has taken to international rugby like a duck to water, albeit a 6ft 6″, 18 stone duck with supreme athleticism to match.
Whether at second-row or blindside flanker, the Saracen possesses the strength and skill to disrupt the Kiwis. After initially being compared to a “Vauxhall Viva” by Eddie Jones, Itoje has proven he can be a genuine Rolls Royce. Two of England’s former great hopes in Courtney Lawes and Joe Launchbury have fallen by the wayside since his emergence.
Crucially, Itoje already has captaincy credentials, having led England’s Under-20s to the World Junior Championship.
As ever, much of the focus regarding Lions selection will focus around the physical battle with their Southern Hemisphere opponents. However, to be successful in New Zealand, perhaps more than any other country, the side will have to display even more brains than brawn.
If Gatland wants to show he is ready to shake off his ‘Warrenball’ tag, he could opt for a captain to mirror his tactics.
Laidlaw is a wily operator at scrum-half and has been the leader of a Scotland side which has broadened its horizons to become a potent attacking outfit under Vern Cotter, who has been earmarked for a role as an assistant in New Zealand.