Alun-Wyn Jones has always been a leader. Ask anyone. But, for years, the softly spoken Sam Warburton was preferred as Warren Gatland's captain. Time and again, for Wales and the British and Irish Lions, that instinct proved sound, as Warburton gained a reputation as a world-class referee-whisperer.
It wasn’t until 2017 that Jones finally got his promotion. By then, Gatland would acknowledge, the arch-competitor had, “matured and calmed down". Owen Farrell, England’s current captain, shares many of Jones’ traits. He is undoubtedly one of the finest players in his position in the world, a standard-setter on and off the field, the man his teammates look to, combative to the end. The respect for him is palpable.
But does that make him the best choice for captain? All those things about him were true two years ago, when Dylan Hartley wore the armband. Being captain isn’t what makes Farrell a leader, a good player, a talisman, or someone who demands excellence from those around him. That’s just his nature.
There have been questions about Farrell’s captaincy before. Partly that is because there is an assumption that forwards make more logical captains and partly because it is clearly a lot to ask one player to be the playmaker, the kicker, and the captain – even if Farrell welcomes the burden.
There is another reason to question Farrell’s captaincy. Gatland chose Warburton because he trusted him to communicate with referees – and because he worried that Jones’ combative nature might be an issue.
One of Farrell’s greatest qualities, his warrior spirit, makes it difficult for him to subtly manage referees. He cannot turn off the desire to win, not should he. But too often that puts him in a referee’s bad books and a captain absolutely cannot afford to be there.
When Eddie Jones took over England, he talked about having a foundation captain, Hartley, followed by another who would lead England to the Rugby World Cup. It was obvious that Farrell was the succession candidate. Like Gatland, it seemed, the Australian wanted his warrior to mature a little, to mellow a little. In the meantime, Hartley played, despite there being a stronger player in his position.
Eventually, however, Hartley’s fitness intervened and Farrell was promoted. There was no better candidate, no player who had cemented their place in the team and shown the necessary leadership qualities. Farrell was the only option.
Now, as concerns are raised again about Farrell’s ability to communicate positively with the referee, it is worth considering the alternatives. George Ford demonstrates his leadership qualities in every game he plays for England and Leicester Tigers. But the England coach’s desire to have two different ways of playing means that Ford isn’t always guaranteed a starting spot.
Maro Itoje is another option, having been successful at age grade level in the role. He is a starter, widely respected for his abilities, and a natural leader. However, a small but significant part of his game is that of a ‘spoiler’ – deliberately disrupting the opposition’s game in varying ways, which often see him give away penalties. Becoming captain would require him to change that aspect of his game, which is currently highly effective.
So who does that leave? There are other outstanding players but injury concerns or seniority make them unsuitable.
There is, however, the man who replaced Hartley in the No 2 jersey. Jamie George is one of the best players in the world in his position and, in recent years, has steadily emerged as a leader. He is intelligent, well-liked, and well-respected. And he is rarely substituted early, often being asked by his coach to play 70+ minutes.
Asking George to take the armband wouldn’t change the fact that Farrell is the team’s talisman. In games where things are going England’s way, it won’t make much difference. But when the team needs a 50/50 call in a tough game, George might have a better chance of success with the referee.