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British and Irish Lions: Maro Itoje backed by Sam Warburton to captain 2021 side

British and Irish Lions: Maro Itoje backed by Sam Warburton to captain 2021 side thumbnail
British and Irish Lions coaches undecided on starting fly-half – Sam Warburton

England and Saracens forward Maro Itoje has been backed to lead the British and Irish Lions against South Africa this summer by the man who captained the side on the last two tours.

Former Wales skipper Sam Warburton, who led the Lions to victory in Australia in 2013 and to a drawn series with New Zealand in 2017, says being captain of the party would “just suit” Itoje.

“I was so impressed with him in 2017,” Warburton told BBC Sport.

“I would follow him into battle.”

Alun Wyn Jones, who captained Wales to the Six Nations title and is targeting his fourth tour, is the heavy favourite to lead the Lions against the Springboks.

“Don’t get me wrong, if Alun Wyn was captain I wouldn’t bat an eyelid,” Warburton added.

“Of course he would be a great captain. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on someone, particularly when they are 35, to make the Test team.”

Warburton says Itoje is a “shoo-in” to be in the starting XV for the three-Test series against the world champions, which tips the balance in the Englishman’s favour.

“I think Maro, James Ryan and Alun Wyn, their ceiling is the highest out of the second rows,” Warburton explained.

“And out of the three, I think Maro is a shoo-in, and I think James Ryan and Alun Wyn will battle it out for the number five shirt.

“I know people will think [Itoje] is under-cooked, and hasn’t played much, and gave away a load of penalties [in the Six Nations], but he still had a big influence on those games.

The British and Irish Lions have launched the shirt that the 2021 team will play in

“I have gone back and forth [with my choice]. It was Maro, then Alun Wyn, and now we are getting closer [to the tour] I am going back to my gut and going back to Maro.

“I just think it suits him. Lions captain just suits him.”

Warburton is not concerned about Itoje’s lack of captaincy experience at the highest level, saying he will have ample support from a cohort of leaders in the touring party.

“If you walked into the Lions environment in 2017 and asked who was captain, you wouldn’t be sure, because you have about 20 authentic leaders there,” he added.

British and Irish Lions coaches Gregor Townsend and Steve Tandy were on hand to see Itoje score in Saracens’ Championship win over Doncaster last weekend

“It is actually the easiest team to captain because you have so many leaders around you.

“There’s more pressure [compared to other captaincy roles], but the actual job of captaincy is easier, because there are so many players helping and driving standards.”

The Lions’ first match is against Japan on 26 June, although a stand-off with the Premiership clubs over player release has threatened to derail the tour before it starts.

Warburton says the Lions have become used to patchy preparation, with players joining the training squad at different times over the past two tours.

Maro Itoje (left) became a talismanic figure in the British and Irish Lions’ drawn series with New Zealand after missing out on selection for the first Test starting XV

“It was the right call to drop the tour to eight games. In this day and age 10 games is a long slog. So taking it down to eight was a step forward but we still have this issue [over player release],” he said.

“The last two tours, the first week’s training camps there were 16-18 players there. It’s strange but you get on with it.

“You know you are going to be disjointed until you actually get on the plane together.”

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