Warren Gatland has a year to decide if Alun Wyn Jones will be too old to be his next Lions tour captain, but Martin Johnson dismisses any suggestion that the Welshman’s age should count against him.
In 12 months, the Kiwi, in charge of his third consecutive British and Irish crusade, will unveil the squad to world champions South Africa and, as always, the skipper’s choice will be the subject of intensive research and debate throughout homelands.
Jones has an extended pedigree and led the Lions to a series-win over Australia in 2013, but nearing his 36th birthday and Gatland has already publicly tackled that factor, asking, “Will he be a little over?” He has to answer his own question in due course, but Johnson’s answer is emphatic.
Martin Johnson believes that Alun Wyn Jones’ age does not matter to the captain of the lions
The Welsh striker is approaching his 36th birthday as coach Warren Gatland assesses options
The man who captained the Lions from their last Springboks win in 1997 told Sportsmail: ‘You only watch four or five games on the tour, so if he’s in the form, no it’s not a problem. And he certainly has the experience. Willie John (McBride) was what – 33, 34 when he did it? ”
Maro Itoje is someone else who has been identified by Gatland as a potential marquee candidate and Johnson added: ‘What you really want is a captain who gets on the test team and is going to lead his position, which is difficult because there are many good second rows. It is all to play for.
“Of course there are already boys with credits. Alun Wyn Jones has a lot as a lion and as a captain of Wales. Itoje has a lot as a player, but they have to do it all over again. They (coaches) will not choose 2018, 2019 and 2020. These guys will have to do it in 2021. ‘
English captain Owen Farrell is another Gatland will consider, and Johnson said, “I’m sure he’ll be right in the middle of it” – among the top contenders. He hopes that Farrell or Jones or anyone else with strong claims to work that eventually gets overlooked volunteer for a support role, as others did for him 23 years ago.
“I wasn’t a great captain in 1997,” he said – of a tour that went six years before leading England to World Cup glory. “I was very inexperienced at the time. I showed up and thought, “Jesus, there are two or three guys here who have a much better resume than me to be a captain – and if they are butchered it will be a problem.” But it was not. That made it very, very easy for me to be a captain. There is a long-standing template for lion captains in South Africa. They are usually large, impressive locks.
During the legendary 1974 tour it was Willie John McBride from Ulster, then Bill Beaumont was appointed in 1980. Johnson was the rookie skipper for the first post-apartheid voyage in 1997, and in 2009 Paul O’Connell maintained the tradition for sky-high, intimidating figureheads.
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It’s such a well-known routine that when asked about the contenders for 2021, Gatland’s first thought was to have the leading locks at his disposal. In a place where physicality is such an essential asset, the giants like Jones and Itoje naturally stand out as logical options.
After filling that mold, Johnson understands the rationale and says, “I get all that. Fran (Cotton, tour manager in 1997) said that. It’s probably easier to captain from the center, if you can show that you are right from the first minute and you are in for the full 80, which you may not be on the wing.
“But Ieuan (Evans) would have been a brilliant captain in 1997 and I don’t think there would have been anything else.”
Johnson acknowledges that a great Lions captain makes a big statement to the Springboks, their audiences and media that tourists mean business – and he enjoys the host country culture that requires such a mindset, adding, “I get it. I love it. I love South Africa and their mentality. They tell you what they think. In 1997 they said, “You’re okay, but your scrum is a bit weak” – and that was at that stage.
English attacker Maro Itoje is another contender to lead the lions in South Africa
“It’s not like in Australia or New Zealand where you get these brain games. In South Africa, they are simply very honest. They’re blunt, to the point where, as an Anglo-Saxon, you can think it’s a little gross, but it’s just how they are. If they think you’re no good, they’ll say it.
‘In 1997 we got a baton from the audience. They are proud as South Africans and Springbok fans, and they are quite up front. But I love their culture. It’s a physical game and that’s how they play.
“They will come out with pride and physicality and you have to deal with that. In 1997 they were big and physical and they wanted to scrumm us into that test series. Especially in the second test, steam came out of their ears and we sometimes held, but we managed. ‘
Johnson said that South Africa has “brutally fair” thinking games while looking back on the 1997 Tour
Johnson is a strong believer in leading by example; to put movings before words of wisdom. But the captain of the lion plays a unique role in his broad and varied demands. The man who takes it up must embrace the need as an ambassador, diplomat and statesman and be an excellent player.
The skipper cannot stay in his comfort zone and rely on past experiences, as Johnson discovered shortly after arriving in Johannesburg in 1997. “It could be different,” he said. “When we got off the plane, we (the management of Johnson and Lions) met Steve Tshwete, the Minister of Sport and Louis Luyt, the president of the union, before a big press conference.
“We were in a room and the Sport Minister told us that he had been locked up on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela and he told the story of supporting the lions. A large part of the black population supported the lions when they played against the Springboks.
“He told us about hearing the results in 1974 while on Robben Island, and cheering because the guards were all huge Springboks fans, so these guys cheered because the Springboks were beaten.
“I was sitting there listening and just thinking,” This is another level. This man is talking about sitting in a cell with Nelson Mandela. This takes it all to a bigger, more important place. ‘
That reception made Johnson realize that this was a sporting crusade that really mattered on both sides and should be taken seriously, but within days he and his fellow lions were accused of taking it too seriously. They won their opening game in Port Elizabeth and reluctantly drew praise as well as local criticism for the absence of old-school high jinks.
Johnson in action during the first test match at Newlands Stadium vs South Africa in 1997
“A press article accused us of being too serious, without reports of hotel parties,” he said. “There were no TVs thrown in the pool, and no one had gotten drunk and caused damage.
In 1974, that Lions tour was known for that sort of thing, so they seemed disappointed we weren’t the same! It was quite funny. They wanted a song and dance like rugby tours used to be, but the world had changed. ‘
It has changed a lot more since then – and there is now more change going on, with the current closure evoking a period of reflection and talking about the sport imminent for an overhaul. Whatever the changed landscape, Johnson hopes the lions – an eternally endangered species – can survive and thrive.
“It’s a wonderful, quirky throwback and it has to be part of the sport,” he said. “People love its history. You can’t make that up. There is a lot of rugby and a lot of every sport these days, so it fades a bit, but Lions tours are always remembered as they are very rare by today’s sport standards – and they are very large. ‘
Next year, Johnson hopes to visit South Africa with his family for the tour. He is a passionate fan of the country and enjoyed playing there, even though it can be a punishing experience.
“The conditions are great, so there are no excuses,” he said. “But they’ll try to beat you up.” Gatland and his lions will know this awaits them, so they need a lot of players capable of striking back the Boks starting with the captain.
After this period of forced rest, Jones will be able to convince the head coach that he is not ‘over’, but the younger Itoje is also in the mix, to continue the tradition of lock leaders in South Africa.