Warren Gatland has told Maro Itoje to focus on ensuring he is one of the first nameâs down on the teamsheet for the British and Irish Lions if he wants any chance of captaining the touring party, despite a glowing reference from predecessor Sam Warburton.
Itoje has been strongly tipped to lead the Lions next summer to South Africa, having been a first-choice selection in the drawn 2017 series against New Zealand in which Warburton skippered Gatlandâs squad for the second consecutive tour.
With Warburton retired and out of the equation, Gatland must look for a new leader among the pack, with Itoje one of 15 names that the New Zealander reeled off on Wednesday who could do a job as the next Lions captain. But while Gatlandâs selection remains a long way off, Warburtonâs mind was made up three years ago.
"Every game I see him play, he's up for man of the match," Warburton said.
"I spent two months with him on tour three years ago. I remember looking at him in training and thinking, 'that guy can be captain on the next tour'.
"He strikes me as a very good leader as well."
Gatland needs no second introduction to Itoje, having selected him alongside firstly George Kruis and then Alun Wyn Jones for the three Tests against the All Blacks on the last tour.
âHe's just maturing as a player,â Gatland said. âWhen he first burst onto the scene he was into everything and he was probably overplaying and using up energy that he didn't need to be, hitting rucks that were lost causes and those sorts of things. Now he has matured as a player.â
But more important to Gatland is the ability to make it into the Test team, which is no easy task even for a player of Itojeâs calibre.
âHe is obviously an outstanding player but that's one of the positions that we were talking about. You've got Alun Wyn Jones, you've got James Ryan, Jonny Grayâ¦ there's a huge amount of depth and strength in that position. Joe Launchbury â there's another one that could potentially captain the side as well. He's been doing that for Wasps.
âI just see that maturity in Maro as a player. He's a very articulate young man, carries himself extremely well, proud of his roots and his upbringing and what he has achieved. He is one of many that could potentially be a candidate but the bottom line is stay injury free and make sure your form is good enough â that's the message.
âI want to reiterate that in a position with so much strength in depth you want to make sure that person is hopefully a player who you are confident that their form is hopefully going to be good enough to get a starting position.
âThat decision (captaincy) is really made incredibly late in terms of picking a captain. In some positions there is so much strength in depth that there is going to be a real battle for Test spots. You have that ominous conversation with a captain to say that you have been selected as captain for the tour but there is no guarantee that you are going to be selected in the Test side and everyone knows that, so that gives everyone potentially a little bit of hope in terms of playing well.â
Gatland will choose the tour captain alongside his backroom staff once the squad has been selected, although the make-up of his assistant coaches remains a mystery after a host of names were raised, to the same response.
âIâve spoken to all four of the union CEOâs and directors of rugby as well in terms of the potential availability of coaches,â Gatland added. âHopefully in the next three to four weeks weâll be able to put a list of those people together and agree terms with them to get that out there.â
Current Ireland coach Andy Farrell has been included as defence coach on the last two tours, while Scotland boss Gregor Townsend had agreed to be a part of Gatlandâs plans to face the All Blacks until he was required to withdraw by the Scottish Rugby Union. Although the head coach would welcome new faces, with names such as Steve Borthwick, Stuart Lancaster and Exeter forwards coach Rob Hunter all thrown into the mix, Gatland has to weigh up the benefits of familiarity compared to a fresh approach.
âHaving that continuity in terms of people who have been there before makes a huge difference,â he said. âItâs the same for medical, analysis and strength and conditioning. (But) you do want some new faces. I think thatâs important and weâve done that on previous tours as well.
âIâve got a huge amount of regard for Andy (Farrell), his leadership, and what he brings to the game and a team. He understands winning and winning environments and heâs very smart. Heâs definitely one of those guys youâre looking at from a continuity perspective.
âI spoke to Stuart (Lancaster) a long time ago. I had an email from Rob (Baster) but that was more to do with talking to Rob Hunter really about what I was looking for from a forwardsâ perspective in terms of the Exeter players for the future.
âI havenât had any personal conversation with (Baxter) about the Lions. It was Rob who was contacting me, about what he wants, what I am looking for from a forwardsâ perspective. Things that he can convey to his players or for them to work on, potentially to be in consideration for a Lions tour. That was through an email and so we are going to have that chat, probably, in the next few days. I was waiting for the two finals to get out of the way before I spoke to Rob.â