Sam Warburton has backed Maro Itoje to follow in his footsteps and captain the British & Irish Lions this summer in South Africa. Alun Wyn Jones is the favourite for the role but his compatriot Warburton, who captained the Lions on their two previous tours, believes the England and Saracens lock is the best man for the job.
Warburton’s ringing endorsement comes in spite of Itoje’s on-field discipline problems during the Six Nations as well as England’s fifth-place finish. Warren Gatland has warned that England’s dismal championship could count against Eddie Jones’s players when it comes to selection but Warburton sees Itoje as a guaranteed Lions Test starter and the ideal leader.
Counting against Itoje is the fact that an agreement still has not been reached over players based in England being granted early release to join the Lions’ preparation camp in Jersey and play in the pre-tour Test against Japan in Edinburgh. Compounding matters, the Championship final second leg is scheduled for 19 June, meaning Itoje would miss the first week of the camp even if a deal is struck between the Lions and the Premiership clubs.
Also the lack of match fitness of England’s Saracens contingent was highlighted by the RFU on Tuesday as a key reason for their dismal Six Nations campaign. Warburton, however, sees Itoje as one of few guaranteed Test starters for the Lions.
“Everybody looked at the first game [of England’s Six Nations campaign, against Scotland] when he gave away four of five penalties, but I think that was just a little bit of rustiness,” said Warburton. “I think Warren will want him to be primed and ready to go because he’s one of the players who will be a guaranteed Test starter and I was extremely impressed with him in 2017. I think given his age … a lot of the other captaincy candidates are a little bit older and I’d question whether there’d be too much pressure to get through a tour like this at the end of the season.
“I think Jamie George, Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell will 100% go on tour. Warren really backs his training methods of getting players match-fit before they play. He did it with a lot of players, including myself, over the years. I think he’ll take comfort that he has four or five games to get those players ready for the first Test. But I do worry about Elliot Daly and Billy Vunipola, whether Elliot’s form has dropped off or whether Billy would take too long to get up to match fitness.”
Warburton urged the Premiership clubs to engage with their players over early release to join the Lions preparations once their domestic seasons have finished. “I do question sometimes whether players are in the foreground of conversations. If they had a conversation with the players’ association in England and said: ‘What do you want to do?’ I think they’d be surprised to hear what the players want. It’s hard to ask for more money [for player release] at the moment, I think you have to be a little more sympathetic.”
Meanwhile, Premiership Rugby announced the shock resignation of Darren Childs as chief executive on Wednesday only 20 months into the job. Childs, an unpopular figure within the league, will join CVC – the private equity firm that owns a 27% stake in the Premiership, where he joins his predecessor Mark McCafferty. It is understood senior figures at Premiership Rugby were not informed of Childs’s decision until moments before it was announced and his departure ends a turbulent tenure that has included the Saracens salary cap scandal and the fallout from the pandemic. PRL will reveal succession plans in due course with Nigel Melville, recently appointed executive chairman, among the favourites.
Sam Warburton was speaking as Canterbury launched the British & Irish Lions Test jersey, available at www.canterbury.com