Paul O’Connell views England captain Owen Farrell as the outstanding candidate to lead the British and Irish Lions against South Africa this summer.
O’Connell was at the helm for the Lions’ last series against the Springboks in 2009 and in Farrell he sees a veteran of two tours with the authority and drive sought by head coach Warren Gatland.
Alun Wyn Jones has become odds-on favourite for the role after excelling during Wales’ march to the first Six Nations title of the post-Gatland era, with Farrell, Stuart Hogg, Ken Owens and Maro Itoje trailing behind him.
But O’Connell, who played 108 Tests for Ireland and seven for the Lions, sees Farrell’s influence and competitive drive as key assets in the quest to topple the world champion Springboks.
“I like Owen Farrell. He’s a real standout leader for me,” Vodafone ambassador O’Connell told the PA news agency.
“With matches being played without crowds, you can hear so much of what the players are saying during games. You can hear Owen barking at his own players and encouraging them.
“A lot of it is about getting off the line and the physical side of the game, but a lot of it is also coaching people into position as well.
“He’s pretty experienced, he’s been on two tours already and he has a big leadership role with England. It wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for him.
“There are plenty of guys who could do the job, but for me in terms of experience and an appetite to lead, he’s the real standout.
“When you pick a captain or leaders for the Lions tour, it’s about picking guys who are willing to take ownership of what the plan is. Owen is a guy who enjoys leading and enjoys taking ownership. He’s almost coaching.”
By his own admission and in the view of his head coach Eddie Jones, Farrell underperformed in a Six Nations that saw England finish fifth, but it was a shortcoming that ran throughout the team.
O’Connell sees a greater issue with the 29-year-old’s limited opportunities to play himself back into form due to Saracens taking part in the second tier Championship this season.
“As a team England didn’t play as well as they’d have liked in the Six Nations,” O’Connell said. “Is that a reflection on Owen Farrell? I don’t really think so.
“But it’s probably a bit of a challenge for him now going from the Six Nations to not having a lot of class rugby. England’s form isn’t a good thing, but it gives him perspective on how hard it is to get it right.”
Since Willie John McBride in 1974, every Lions tour to South Africa has been led by a second row with Bill Beaumont, Martin Johnson and O’Connell following in the Irish great’s footsteps.
Picking Farrell, a fly-half and inside centre, would break with established tradition but O’Connell believes that the key figures in the position – Jones and Itoje – would benefit from a narrower focus.
O’Connell said: “If Alun Wyn Jones isn’t captain, he doesn’t change how he behaves. He’s still the same character.
“He’s another standout candidate, but you just wonder sometimes if a guy who has captained an awful lot and who didn’t have an awful lot of games coming into a fantastic Six Nations, if it would be good for him not to be captain for once.
“He’d be able to concentrate on his own game and support someone like a Farrell.
“I’d love to see Maro playing great rugby. He’s already a line-out caller. Alun Wyn captains Wales but doesn’t call the line-out, it’s a stress they take away from him which allows him to do his job better. You might think the same of Maro Itoje.”
:: Paul O’Connell was speaking in support of the first instalment of the ‘Lions Live’ vlogcast series, which is available to view now on the official British and Irish Lions app powered by Vodafone.