Lions leadership race down to three

Andrew Baldock, PA Sport Rugby Union Correspondent sees just a trio of men still in the running to lead the Lions in South Africa

And then there were three. Three months to go before the British and Irish Lions are in camp at their Surrey training base; three rounds of this season’s selection-defining RBS 6 Nations Championship left; and three stand-out candidates for the coveted Lions captaincy.

Those based north of the border might throw in a fourth option - current Scotland skipper Mike Blair - but it is difficult to envisage Lions boss Ian McGeechan straying outside a choice between Paul O’Connell, Ryan Jones or Brian O’Driscoll.

It is a trio of proven leaders, either on the international stage or in a similarly high-octane environment generated by Heineken Cup rugby.

While McGeechan’s decision is unlikely to be made public before mid-April, all three players’ leadership CVs stack up for the three-Test South Africa tour later this year.

And they also, at this stage, meet the first criteria of any Lions skipper - guaranteed Test team selection.

Ireland lock O’Connell, through the sheer world-class consistency of his performances alone, is the current market leader.

Munster’s 2008 Heineken Cup-winning captain would emulate fellow locks like Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson in leading the Lions if McGeechan opts for the 6ft 6in talisman.

O’Connell’s many admirers include former England and Gloucester back-row forward Mike Teague, a Test Lion during McGeechan’s victorious expedition to Australia 20 years ago.

‘Iron Mike’ is in no doubt that O’Connell provides all the right credentials.

“When you look at Willie John and Martin, it is easy to see why their opponents feared them and their team-mates wanted to follow them,” he said.

“I see Paul O’Connell in very much the same mode - a big man and a big player.

“When you look at his set-piece play, his work-rate and the way he carries the ball, he has all the makings of a great player.

“He is certainly the sort of player that I would have wanted to play with, and I am sure he can be a force with the Lions this summer.

“I think there is enough talent here in the four countries to create a strong enough team to beat the South Africans. But it will be all about how quickly the players can gel.

“We found our feet pretty quickly in 1989, and the fact we had some tough games before the Test series began against the Wallabies made such a difference to us.

“I am sure every game in South Africa will be hard, especially up on the High Veldt.

“That is why the Lions need a strong, powerful leader, and why I feel O’Connell is the man to put at the helm.”

In the red corner stands Jones, who has led Wales on just 12 occasions, yet his achievements already include a Six Nations Grand Slam and an autumn victory over Australia.

Ospreys back-row giant Jones initially left his considerable footprint on the sport in 2005, when he starred in Wales’ first Grand Slam campaign for 27 years and then featured during all three Lions Tests against New Zealand after being summoned as a tour injury replacement.

Wales boss Warren Gatland installed him as skipper for his first game in charge against England last season, and results have been impressive, with Jones’ team climbing to an all-time high of fourth on the International Rugby Board world rankings list.

He has also bounced back superbly from a demanding autumn campaign, when some detractors even questioned his place in the team following a temporary form lapse.

“Anyone who knows me knows that every time I give my best and wear my heart on my sleeve,” said Jones, speaking after last weekend’s third successive Six Nations win against England.

“Sometimes it goes for you, other times it does not.

“There was a lot made about the autumn campaign and (about) me personally, and at times it is difficult to cope with and living it out in the public spotlight.”

Much of Wales’ startling revival under Gatland though, has been put down to Jones’ leadership qualities on and off the pitch, especially amid the pain of a ferociously-tough training schedule.

“When I get up on a Wednesday morning and it is tipping down with rain and I am sweating and being sick, that doesn’t motivate me. I don’t enjoy it and I don’t want to be there,” he added.

“But what it enables me and the team to do is to perform on a Saturday afternoon.

“That was almost taken away from me in the past, and the only thing that interests me is competing.”

And then there is Ireland skipper O’Driscoll, Lions Test captain for barely a minute in 2005 before the combined spear-tackling efforts of New Zealand pair Tana Umaga and Keven Mealamu resulted in him suffering a tour-ending shoulder injury.

It was the cruellest of moments, but with O’Driscoll seemingly close to the form that made him a Lions star in Australia eight years ago, McGeechan could easily offer another opportunity.

In the mean-time, it is all bubbling up nicely for March 21 in Cardiff when Wales host Ireland, possibly with the Six Nations title and Grand Slam at stake.

O’Connell, O’Driscoll and Jones are set to play leading roles on that Saturday evening in question, suggesting that as final auditions go, they don’t come much bigger.