BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Lions’ lack of a standout leader hasn’t helped Warren Gatland’s cause

Sam Warburton, left, and Peter O'Mahony face the New Zealand haka prior to last Saturday's first test match. Pic: Stephen McCarthy

We were told that this was the best-prepared and most talented Lions squad to leave these shores in modern times, but where are the standout leaders? asks Brendan O’Brien.

Warren Gatland has taken all sorts of flak for all sorts of stuff this week but no-one can say the Lions head coach didn’t put everyone on notice when it came to potential on-field leaders and the possibility that his skipper could be wearing an armband one week and a crested blazer and tie the next.

“The captaincy is a great honour but, whoever the captain is going to be, there’ll be no guarantee he plays in the Tests,” he said back in March. “His form has to be good enough. Whoever that person is has to rise to that. The message to that person is: it’s a great honour to captain the Lions but your form has to be good enough to be selected for the Tests.”

Tomorrow won’t be Peter O’Mahony’s first experience of watching on from the sidelines as a team he skippered one week goes about its business the next. He had just turned 24 back in October of 2013 when, after suffering a blow to the head at home to Leinster, he was omitted from the Munster squad for their Heineken Cup opener away to Edinburgh.

“It is a tough place to be but we’ve plenty of senior players in the group who are well able to speak and captain sides and lead a Munster team,” he said a few days after a painful 29-23 loss at Murrayfield. “It is a tough place to be when you are seen as a leader but you can’t really pipe up if you haven’t got an action to do.”

That sense of helplessness will be multiplied tenfold this week.

O’Mahony isn’t the first elite sportsperson to suffer the awkwardness that comes with this latest change in fortunes. For a start, plenty of hurlers and footballers have been given the honour of captaining a county by their clubs down the years only to find their input restricted to a supporting role from beyond the favoured 15.

Professional football has given us lots more examples: from Brazil’s Rai, who was dropped and replaced as captain by Dunga at the 1994 World Cup, to Wayne Rooney, who was still technically the alpha male in England’s pack when Gareth Southgate summoned the courage lacking in his predecessors and confined the Manchester United player to the bench last year.

You could, of course, argue that O’Mahony’s demotion has been unduly harsh.

His performance at the lineout in Auckland last week has been held up in his defence. So too has Sam Warburton’s lack of impact off the bench in that 30-15 loss, as well as the Welshman’s struggles for form and fitness in recent months, but the switch is emblematic of an issue that has haunted the Lions for far too long now.

We were told that this was the best prepared and most talented Lions squad to leave these shores in modern times. That Gatland had chosen a squad on the back of what had been an impressive Six Nations tournament and that Ireland had struck an early blow by bloodying the All Blacks’ noses in Chicago last November.

Yet, where were, and are, the standout leaders?

There are men of exceptional character and talent in Gatland’s squad right now but none possess both the mix of requisite leadership qualities and the sort of world-class form and status of a Martin Johnson, a Brian O’Driscoll, a Paul O’Connell or even a Warburton when the Welshman was playing at the peak of his powers.

Eddie Jones summed this deficit up in a roundabout way back in April when suggesting that the respective captains of Ireland, England, Scotland, and Wales should be appointed to a sort of interim leadership group. “Then, after the warm-up games, whoever was the leading player I would make captain for the first Test,” he told ESPN.

Subsequent events blew a few holes in that theory. Dylan Hartley didn’t even make the squad, Greig Laidlaw only got to travel when Ben Youngs dropped out due to family reasons and neither Rory Best nor Alun Wyn Jones have made the sort of impact on tour that absolutely demanded even their inclusion in the Test side.

In 1973, the rugby writer JGB Thomas said it was up to a captain to maintain standards, “keep their committees happy, appease the supporters’ clubs, attend all training sessions, study the opposition, make diplomatic speeches and be above reproach themselves”. Some of those tasks have gone and been replaced by others but the centrality of the role remains.

Captains are fulcrums, rocks that provide the foundations on which teams are built, and it is hard not to look on from afar at the Lions’ scramble for a standout skipper and not think that it has played some part in undermining what it is they are trying to do in New Zealand and how they go about doing it.

And it is difficult to blame Gatland for that.

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