How Warburton and Johnson broke the Lions captaincy mould

When Fran Cotton chose Martin Johnson as his Lions’ captain in 1997 he did not so much break the mould as smash it into oblivion. Instead of going for a man who would be the perfect ambassador – smart, able to make a good speech and remain a diplomat whatever the provocation — he set new criteria.

Johnson had no experience of captaincy to speak of (Phil de Glanville had taken over from Will Carling to captain England in that year’s Five Nations) but Cotton deliberately wanted somebody who would lead from the front no matter if that meant he was pretty abrasive.

He wanted somebody big, somebody who would intimidate the opposition from the moment he fronted up against his opposing captain to toss the coin to the final whistle and Johnson was the perfect fit. If he lacked a little finesse so much the better as far as his manager was concerned.

This was the first professional Lions tour and before he was appointed Cotton, a key member of the 1974 Lions’ team that had defeated South Africa in a Test series for the first time, made it clear he wanted to be a very different sort of manager to those who had gone before. He wanted control over every aspect of the tour including selection of players and coaching staff.

Looking back, it was incredible that he persuaded the Four Home Unions to go along with his vision. He was without doubt the most powerful Lions Manager there has ever been.

Until that tour there had been a selection panel — one person from each of the Unions (who ideally should have had experience as a national selector but was no longer on the panel — how archaic was that?) — with the manager taking on the role of chairman. Cotton was having none of that, he insisted on appointing his coaching team first, (Sir) Ian McGeechan and Jim Telfer and then the three of them would pick the squad.

“At the end of the Six Nations I did not expect a Welsh captain but now, I shall not be at all surprised if Sam Warburton is named as skipper when Gatland announces his squad next week.”

Sam Warburton is the favourite to lead the Lions in New Zealand

Before that Lions’ selection had been shamelessly political — each national representative biased towards his own players — and several tours were badly compromised because of it. The captaincy was considered a particular prize, to be fought for tooth and nail, and this often caused resentment and at worst critically weakened the make-up of the squad and the Test team.

In 1966, for example, it was widely accepted that the best candidate was Alun Pask, the Wales No. 8 and captain, who commanded enormous respect from all the players but a Welsh PE teacher did not suit the profile demanded by the selection committee and a British army captain, Mike Campbell-Lamerton, who played for Scotland, was picked instead even though he was always going to struggle to hold down a place in the Test team. To his credit he dropped himself for two of the Tests in New Zealand.

There was always a feeling that the captain of the side that had won the Championship was the man in the driving seat but it backfired once again in 1983. Ciaran Fitzgerald, an Irish army captain (being a military leader really seemed to tick the boxes!) was given the job but that meant leaving out Peter Wheeler, the hugely experienced England hooker. It was my first Lions Tour as a journalist and eight tours later remains, along with 2005, the most disappointing in terms of performance.

Being Welsh was definitely a disadvantage when it came to choosing the captain in the amateur era. A.F. Harding, a London Welshman, captained the 1908 Tour but that was an Anglo-Welsh team so even with the broadest brush cannot count as a Lions side and there was not another Welsh captain until 1971 when John Dawes led the Lions to victory in New Zealand.

That was never in doubt. Dawes had pioneered a new style of rugby at London Welsh and Carwyn James, the ’71 coach, was an equally passionate advocate. It had been adopted by the Welsh national team culminating in a Grand Slam in 1971 so there were 12 Welshmen in the touring party and, for once, choosing the captain was easy.

In terms of selection and team bonding 1966 was something of a watershed. Campbell-Lamerton effectively became captain/coach when John Robins – the first assistant manager chosen for his coaching pedigree (he was my mentor at Loughborough at the time) – broke his leg and was out of action during the crucial period in New Zealand and the Welsh contingent apparently became very disenchanted. It was not a happy touring party.

The result was a change in policy. Room-mates would be swapped every two weeks with players from the same country not allowed to share. It was firmly in place on my two tours and the only time I roomed with another Welshmen (Mervyn Davies — we shared a flat in London) was before the final Test in New Zealand in 1971.

Now, of course it is the head coach who holds all the power. Warren Gatland finalised his coaching team some weeks ago and they constitute his selection panel. He has the final say and nobody doubts he will get exactly the team he wants.

He will want a captain who is assured of his Test place even though you can argue that is not quite so important anymore — there will be a number of leaders on the field and with the 23 man game strategy and injury risk being as high as it is in the modern game they will be needed.

At the end of the Six Nations I did not expect a Welsh captain but now, I shall not be at all surprised if Sam Warburton is named as skipper when Gatland announces his squad next week.

He is right back to his best and will be one of the first names on the team-sheet whilst all his main rivals still have a fight on their hands for that starting spot. We also know Gatland, who believes in going for the tried and tested, trusts him totally so the job is his. Unless, of course, the Manager does a Fran Cotton on us but I doubt it.