Sam Warburton believes Maro Itoje has the edge over Alun Wyn Jones in the race to become British and Irish Lions captain for the summer tour to South Africa.
A week after another former Lions skipper in Paul O’Connell endorsed the credentials of Owen Farrell, Warburton claimed that Itoje’s status as a certainty for the Test team is a major factor in his favour.
The Saracens second row was one of England’s better performers in a poor Six Nations, but his high penalty count appeared to dent his chances of being chosen for the role by Warren Gatland.
But Warburton, Lions captain in 2017 and 2019, does not see that as an obstacle for a player who excelled in New Zealand four years ago and offers more than Wales talisman Jones.
“I’ve gone back and forth, but I’ll go with who I thought at the very beginning and that’s Maro Itoje,” Warburton said.
“Anybody who looked at the first game of the Six Nations against Scotland where he conceded four or five penalties would say ‘oh you can’t do that’, but that was a bit of rustiness.
“Warren will want him primed and ready to go as he’s one of the players who will be a guaranteed Test starter. I was extremely impressed with him in 2017 and Warren would have seen all that as well.
“The other captaincy candidates are a little bit older. You question whether it would be a bit too much pressure for them to go through a tour like this at the end of the season.
“I’ve gone back and forth with him and Alun Wyn Jones. Alun Wyn will be up there and I’m sure will captain games on tour, but I would probably go with Maro Itoje.
“The reason I say Maro as captain is because I think he’s a dead cert and it’s between Alun Wyn and James Ryan to battle it out for that number five shirt.
“Warren knows the pressure on the captain if they are not a guaranteed starter and I think there are six bankers to start a Test – Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Taulupe Faletau, Tom Curry, Anthony Watson and Stuart Hogg.
“I don’t think he will pick a back as captain, so the other player who has the leadership experience he will want is Maro. If Alun Wyn is captain, though, you know you will be in safe hands.”
Warburton excelled as a flanker in 74 Tests for Wales and five for the Lions and he sees the competition for back row places when Gatland names his squad on May 6th as ferocious with big-name casualties certain.
“I don’t know who will miss out and it will be incredibly cruel, but I think Hamish Watson and Tom Curry will go. I think Sam Simmonds will go” he said.
“Then you’ve also got people who can cover six like Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Tadhg Beirne. All of those players plus the Welsh boys Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi and Faletau don’t fit. There’s going to be some big, big omissions.
“If Sam Underhill keeps playing well for Bath, he could go. England missed him and Lawes massively in the Six Nations. You can’t overlook them just because they missed the Six Nations.
“All these brilliant back-rows aren’t going to go. Unfortunately, I’d love to see them all go and they’re all worthy of going, but I think there’s going to be a Welsh casualty.”
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) April 2, 2021
Watson was named player of the 2021 Six Nations and Warburton rubbishes the claim that the powerful Scotland flanker, who stands 6’0 and is 16 stones, is too small to face the Springboks.
“Hamish Watson is never too small. Power trumps size every day of the week. I think that Warren Gatland would be purring watching Hamish Watson over the Six Nations,” he said.
“As things are right now he’s a Test starter and I can’t wait to see how he goes in the warm-up games.”