Maro Itoje backed to captain British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021

Former captains Sam Warburton and Paul O’Connell have backed Maro Itoje to lead the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next summer.

Itoje was one of the standout performers during the Lions’ drawn series with New Zealand in 2017 and remains in a rich vein of form for both Saracens and England.

“Every game I see him play, he’s up for man of the match,” said Warburton, who skippered the Lions during the 2013 and 2017 tours.

“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.”

O’Connell was captain when the Lions last toured South Africa in 2009, losing a memorable series 2-1, and he expects Warren Gatland to again opt for a forward as captain.

“It probably hints towards Itoje,” said O’Connell. “That’s where the Lions have gone in the last few tours and it has been successful.

“Certainly in 1997 it was a success with Martin Johnson. He was young, abrasive, competitive. He didn’t say a lot, just got the job done.”

The other big question is who Gatland will take in his coaching team. With Rob Howley having served his ban for betting on rugby and joined up with Canada, could he be back in the frame?

“He has been a Test winner as a player and a coach, and a Six Nations winner as a coach,” said Warburton.

“If you went with Rob Howley it’d be a very safe option. You’re going to have a top-quality coach on your team.

“If Warren goes with Rob that’ll be someone who he knows very well. That wouldn’t surprise me at all.”

Sir Ian McGeechan coached the Lions to that famous win over the then-world champion Springboks in 1997.

Current Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend played at fly-half for the Lions on that tour and McGeechan would like to see him involved next summer.

“I’d like to think Gregor might come into the picture for the backs,” he said. “It would help him to be part of that.

“He has been part of the Lions as a player and I think he has a lot to give.”

The British & Irish Lions’ three-Test series against South Africa, plus five warm-up matches, will be shown exclusively live on Sky Sports between July 3-August 7 2021


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