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The history of British and Irish Lions tour captains
With Warren Gatland set to unveil his choice of tour captain at the same time as his British and Irish Lions squad on Thursday, we pick out some of the team’s greatest-ever leaders.
Captaining the Lions on a series in the southern hemisphere is an honour that has been bestowed upon 28 individuals since the first tour of its kind in 1888.
Only Martin Johnson (1997 and 2001) and Sam Warburton (2013 and 2017) have led the Lions in back-to-back series.
But with Warburton now enjoying his well-earned retirement from the game, a hat-trick is beyond the Welshman and a new man will be asked to step forward and take on the responsibility in South Africa.
History says second-row is a position that lends itself to the role. In the last 10 tours dating back to 1980, three second-rowers in Bill Beaumont, Johnson and Paul O’Connell have been named as tour captain.
And many people believe that it’s a toss-up between second-row rivals Alun Wyn Jones, a tour winner to Australia in 2013, and Maro Itoje this time around.
Stuart Hogg and Owen Farrell, the respective captains of Scotland and England, have also been talked about as strong candidates.
If successful in getting the coveted job, 35-year-old Jones would become only the fifth Welsh Lions captain after Arthur Harding, the recently deceased John Dawes, Phil Bennett and Warburton.
Of all the four eligible countries, Ireland boast the largest contingent of Lions captains with 10. England and Scotland have each had seven.
While the identity of this year’s captain is still to be revealed, one thing we do know is whoever is chosen will join a pantheon of legends.
Here’s four of the best to have worn the captain’s armband.
A central figure in Wales’ golden decade in the 1970s, Dawes’ place in Lions’ history is also assured. The celebrated centre is the only man to have led the side on a victorious tour to New Zealand, guiding the tourists to a 2-1 triumph in the four-test series in 1971. The final test was drawn 14-14 in Auckland. Dawes sadly passed away in April 2021, aged 80.
Willie John McBride
The World Rugby Hall of Fame inductee won 17 caps across a record five tours and is the only Lions captain along with Bill Maclagan (1891) to lead the side on an unbeaten tour. Tough and uncompromising, McBride was the perfect man for the job in South Africa in 1974 as the Lions faced up to physical intimidation and won 21 of their 22 matches. The other match was drawn.
Johnson’s selection as captain in 1997 may have been regarded as something of a surprise at the time given that he’d not yet led his country, but it turned out to be an inspirational choice. Johnson captained the Lions to a 2-1 series victory against the Springboks, showing a maturity beyond his 27 years, and was also ever-present in the 2-1 series defeat to Australia four years later. He shares the record for most Lions tests as captain (six) with Ireland’s Ronnie Dawson.
Earmarked as a natural-born leader early on in his career, Warburton became the youngest-ever captain of the British and Irish Lions when he led the side in Australia in 2013 at the age of 24. Having lifted the Tom Richards Cup, he was selected again for the tour to New Zealand in 2017, becoming only the second man after Johnson to captain the side on back-to-back tours. Warburton went one better than the Englishman in avoiding a series defeat, the series in New Zealand ending all-square at 1-1.
Read more: The best moments from the Living with the Lions documentary >>