Making sense of Eddie Jones’ case for a Lions leadership group

Charlie Devas

With Warren Gatland’s Lions squad announcement just around the corner, rugby fans have been having their say for weeks now on who will be granted the honour of captaining the side down in New Zealand.

One opinion on the matter that raised a few eyebrows was that of England head coach Eddie Jones, who widened the debate on the Lions captaincy by suggesting that the role should be shared among four captains – one from each of the four nations.

It’s challenging to think of another sport in which successful captains are recognised as quite such potent figureheads than in rugby – held in the highest regard and genuine leaders of men. To this end, Jones’ left field recommendation has certainly put rugby’s conventional wisdom in question on this particular notion.

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Yet in the isolated case that is the Lions, it’s a proposition that makes great sense. Here’s why.

Until the conclusion of the Six Nations, there was no stand-out candidate for the post. Among others, newly-appointed Wales skipper Alun Wyn Jones, Irish stalwart Rory Best and the seemingly-rejuvenated Dylan Hartley had all been part of the discussion.

It’s only off the back of the tournament that Sam Warbuton has emerged as the favourite to be picked as captain for the second successive tour.

While it still remains to be seen whether Warbuton will indeed be elected as skipper, it appears as if the Welshman’s form of late may well have eased one of Gatland’s many selection headaches ahead of the tour, but his recent injury has thrown a curveball ahead of his selection.

Warburton faces a six-week lay off following ligament damage - Image Source: Twitter
Warburton faces a six-week lay off following ligament damage – Image Source: Twitter

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It’s common consensus that the captain of any side ought to be one of the first names on the team-sheet, but such is the competition throughout the squad for places that very few players will have the privilege of being considered as automatic picks, thus reinforcing the justification of a ‘leadership group’ rather than a sole talisman.

From a symbolism perspective, a captain representing each of the four nations that make up the Lions would be the most fitting embodiment of the very essence of a side steeped in such a rich history.

Arguably no other act could incarnate the collective spirit of the Lions, and reflect what is likely to be a more equally-representative touring squad than what we have been accustomed to in years gone by.

In this regard, a group of leaders would tick the ‘diplomacy box’ that undoubtedly comes into the fold in terms of the Lions’ squad composition.

What’s more, and perhaps more so in rugby, there are demonstrable ‘sub-groups’ within a starting XV – the pack, the half-backs, the back-three etc. Each one will inevitably contain its own unofficial leader – George Kruis could be in charge of line-out calls, Owen Farrell might be chief coordinator of the defensive shape, and so on.

This arguably diminishes the overall responsibilities of a captain and increasingly reduces it to a more ambassadorial role in terms of handling the media and engaging with match officials.

It’s fair to say that we tend to get ourselves rather hysterical over the issue of captaincy – not just concerning rugby union, but across almost every mainstream sport. Gatland is, understandably, more than likely to put his faith in Warburton once more and few could contest such a decision.

Yet moving forward we could witness a shake-up in the leadership dynamics of the Lions, as coaches look to capitalise on any advantage they can in confronting one of the most demanding challenges in world rugby.

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