Leader of the pack
Sky Sports rugby union writer Tony Curtis assesses the leading candidates hoping to captain the British and Irish Lions.
By Tony Curtis - Follow me on Twitter @SkysportsTC. Last Updated: 12/04/13 12:26am
It will be the toughest decision British and Irish Lions head coach Warren Gatland has to make - who will be his talisman in Australia.
Leading the Lions is no easy task, with the selected individual having to pull together players from the home unions - who have spent the previous four years as enemies - and unite them in one common cause. He has to be respected, feared, liked and influential all at the same time.
In the past there has been a clear contender to take up the challenge, or maybe a couple vying for the honour.
This time around, though, it is not as clear-cut. The key issue is the fact none of the names being bandied about appear to be certainties for the Test starting XV - with Gatland even indicating that being skipper does not guarantee a place in the line-ups to face the Wallabies.
Gatland will confirm his choice when he names his squad on April 30 - and ahead of the decision we look at the contenders.
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Warburton was a left-field selection for the Wales captaincy under Gatland and was the early front-runner for the role with the Lions. However a loss of form saw the talented openslide flanker struggling to hold down his place in the national team. Warburton showed signs he was back to his best during the Six Nations, however he was free of the responsibility of leadership, though, with Ryan Jones and then Gethin Jenkins taking over the reins. Despite his undoubted ability, competition among the Lions back row is pretty intense so there are no guarantees that Warburton will make the team.
The England captain has his critics but he keeps proving people wrong time and time again. Had he led England to Grand Slam glory in Cardiff he would have been hard to overlook for the captaincy, however it just didn't happen as Wales cut loose. Robshaw, though, was one of the few Englishmen to leave the Millennium Stadium with his reputation intact. Robshaw is the sort of captain who leads by example and looks for others to follow. Like Warburton, the competition for places means he could have enough to focus on just getting in the team, let alone having the pressures of leadership.
The Wales lock has found himself in the long list of contenders after receiving some pretty impressive backing. Former Lions skipper Martin Johnson is among his admirers but could Jones follow in his footsteps? Johnson, Willie John McBride, Paul O'Connell, Bill Beaumont and Robin Thompson are among the second rows to have led the Lions - and Jones certainly fits the bill. He has already had experience captaining his country, while he was a member of the 2009 Lions. He is a powerhouse in the engine room and looks a good bet to start the Test team having returned to full fitness.
The Ireland captain has seen his stock rise and fall like a 'Footsie 100' company over the past 12 months. Heaslip was praised after taking over the leadership for the autumn internationals, and was even name-dropped by Gatland as a captaincy contender. However, as Ireland's fortunes faltered, the 29-year-old has come in for increasing criticism. As is the curse of captains, Heaslip has been judged on his country's form rather than his own performances and appears to have dropped down the pecking order for the No 8 jersey - although he remains a class act.
Stung by losing the Ireland captaincy, O'Driscoll would love one last hurrah as Lions skipper. The legendary centre was captain in 2005 but was brutally targeted by the All Blacks. He certainly ticks a lot of the boxes for Gatland. He is well respected by players across the home unions - if not the globe; he is someone who still scares the opposition; he has a wealth of experience; and looks a solid choice for the Test team. His form of late has been criticised - although, like Heaslip, you can't help feeling he is being judged on Ireland's poor performances rather than his own displays.
Although the front-rower's place in the tour squad is far from guaranteed given his commitments with Toulon in France, it would be remiss to overlook the player that skippered Wales to the championship-winning victory over England in Cardiff. Back to full fitness, Jenkins is one of the leading loosehead props in the world - and he brings so much more to the game than just scrummaging. An influential character, he has proven himself in the big games and is a shrewd operator when the pressure is on - so it was no surprise that he was asked to captain Wales for the title decider.
Perhaps a shock name for some given the options Gatland has for the back row but the Scotland skipper has earned the right to be in contention not only for the tour, but the captaincy too. He has led his country with distinction during some difficult times and is a well-respected player on the domestic and international circuits. He might not be as flash or put himself in the spotlight like some of the other contenders, however he is still a talented operator. Others follow his lead, with Brown's work ethic and never-say-die attitude key features to the way he plays the game.
Like a thoroughbred race horse, O'Connell has made a late charge up the rails to challenge for the front. The Munsterman could emulate fellow giant of the game in Johnson by leading the Lions on back-to-back tours having been the skipper in South Africa four years ago. O'Connell has endured a miserable spell out with injury - first knee and then back - however he is back and is hungrier than ever. He highlighted the huge influence his has on his sides by guiding Munster to a shock win at Harlequins. He brings passions, pride and intensity every time he plays.