Lions captain will emerge in time
January 28, 2009
Martin Johnson led the Lions to a memorable series victory over South Africa in 1997 © Getty Images
Phil Bennett Finlay Calder Mike Campbell-Lamerton Fran Cotton Mervyn Davies Phil de Glanville Ciaran Fitzgerald Will Greenwood Gavin Hastings Martin Johnson Willie-John McBride Alun Pask Peter Wheeler Clive Woodward
How I wish everybody would stop speculating on who is going to captain the Lions to South Africa next summer!
It is premature, pointless and totally fatuous but judging by the column inches devoted to it over recent weeks you would think it was going to be announced next week. Nobody will have a clue who is really in the running until the middle of March when the Six Nations Championship has thrown up its usual crop of surprises and we know who has trained on and who has fallen by the wayside.
One thing is for certain - nobody on the coaching/management side is preoccupied with the captaincy because they know in all probability it will be a case of natural selection. There may have been a time when the selectors picked the captain before the rest of the team but certainly not since 1966.
The obvious choice of captain for that trip to Australia and New Zealand was the Welsh skipper, Alun Pask. He was the outstanding No. 8 of his era, Wales had won the Championship and there were 11 Welshmen in the original 30; that became 12 when Terry Price arrived as a replacement. The second biggest contingent was from Ireland who had 9 but, in their wisdom, the selectors opted for Mike Campbell-Lamerton, a very English army captain who played for Scotland. He was not even skipper of his own country.
It was a disaster. When things began to unravel in New Zealand the Welsh and Irish became resentful of the selection process (to his credit Campbell-Lamerton finally dropped himself), the Welsh boys formed a clique within the team and the tour is remembered as the least successful and probably the unhappiest in the history of the Lions.
The next Lions tour was to South Africa in 1968 and the lessons had been learned. It was my first tour as a player and everything possible was done to make sure there would be no repeat of 1966. France had won the Grand Slam that year but Ireland were the most successful home nation and their hugely experienced captain, Tom Kiernan, was the natural choice to do the same job for the Lions.
Cliquishness was impossible. We changed room-mates every week and were always billeted with a player from another country.
On the 1971 tour the management were not quite so rigid. For the final five days leading up to the last Test I was allowed to share with Mervyn Davies, by this time my long term Welsh 'roomy' - we also shared a house in London - but that was the only time I roomed with another Welshman on Lions duty.
John Dawes was captain in 1971having led Wales to the Grand Slam. Willie John McBride was the obvious choice for 1974 - Ireland were the best of the rest behind France under his guidance (and it was his fifth tour).
Wales had won the Triple Crown under Phil Bennett in 1977, Billy Beaumont had led England to a Grand Slam in 1980 and it seemed as if the Four Home Unions had cracked it.
In 1983 Ireland shared the Championship with France and their captain, Ciaran Fitzgerald, was automatically chosen to lead the Lions to New Zealand. Suddenly, it was not so simple because it was soon evident that 'Captain Calamity' (he was a captain in the Irish army), as he was unkindly christened, was a terrible choice.
The selectors had slavishly followed the format without factoring in the other vital quality. He had to be sure of his place in the Test team. In fairness to them there were no other obvious candidates. Ironically, Peter Wheeler, who was clearly a better player and should have been the Test hooker, might have been the best choice but he was not England captain and their record in the 1983 Five Nations made it impossible.
The choice of Finlay Calder in 1989 and Gavin Hastings in 1993 (Will Carling was no longer sure of his place and considered too controversial) were unanimous but 1997 was not so clear-cut. Fortunately, they chose a manager with a clear vision of exactly what he wanted. England had won the Triple Crown but Fran Cotton did not even pick the captain, Phil de Glanville, opting instead for the uncapped Will Greenwood.
His choice for captain was even more controversial - the imposing but occasionally out of control Martin Johnson. 'I wanted to make a statement right from the start,' said Cotton. 'I wanted a big man who would lead from the front and would be in their faces from the moment he went to toss the coin.'
It was an inspired choice and the rest is history.
Clive Woodward, predictably tried to reinvent the wheel but now the Lions legacy is back in safe hands so don't even think about the captaincy - at least until after the 3rd round of matches.
By that time we'll have some idea of where it is all going. If Wales are unbeaten and Ryan Jones is playing out of his skin it will be done and dusted. If Brian O'Driscoll has recovered his true form and Ireland are dominating he becomes favourite.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. It is time to concentrate on the centre-piece of our European season. If the Lions are to stand a chance we need a cracking Six Nations with all four countries making a step up.
The captain will almost certainly select himself. If there is a dilemma call in Cotton.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and a regular contributor to Scrum.com