Captain Fantastic

There is plenty of speculation about who the Milky Bar Kid will hand his armband to. For some, it seems particularly relevant as it gives Schmidt the chance to prove he isn’t inherently biased towards the Blue Meanies and pick someone who isn’t from the Pale. This is nonsense of course, but doesn’t make it any less important. Deccie’s well-meaning attempt to position Ireland for RWC15 by picking Jamie Heaslip  as last season’s captain [Aside: Deccie always picked Leinstermen as Ireland’s permanent captain – BIAS!] didn’t quite work out, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong to do it. We might be late to the party in planning for the tournament, but that should be our horizon here. So who are the contenders?

Some Bloke Called Brian.  He has done the state some service, they might say. But he’ll be gone in nine months, and is only coming back from injury.  His leadership is so great it’s almost hard for the captain to be in charge, as Heaslip found last season, but this being his last year, there is surely no point in handing the armband.

Paul O’Connell. Favourite, due to his totemic pack leadership credentials, but an injury doubt for the first game, which doesn’t help his chances. Many of his best recent performances – think first Lions test – haven’t come as captain and he seems to function best as a leader, but not the leader. You’ll get his on-pitch leadership anyway, so it probably matters less to him than to some outside the camp.  Would be a fine choice in any case.

Jamie Heaslip. Divided opinion when appointed last year – some considered it a brave choice by a previously unimaginative coach, some a foolhardy choice  of an “absolute knob” (C. George). Undoubtedly, it didn’t work out, amid a team imploding on-field and off. Healsip didn’t help himself by wearing headphones absent-minded and naive post-game comments. But surely remains a respected leader within the team, and his relationship with Schmidt is presumably stronger than that he had with Kidney, which always looked like an uneasy alliance.  Schmidt used him as captain any time Cullen wasn’t around, and if O’Connell is injured, Heaslip probably becomes the favourite. He is also incumbent, so choosing Heaslip won’t be as controversial for Schmidt as it was for Deccie.

Rory Best. The stalking horse. Besty has been mentioned by precisely nobody, but he is who we would appoint. He is already part of the squad’s leadership corps, has plenty of experience, and has recovered from last season’s half-annus horribilis. Best will be around past RWC15, and has played a key role in husbanding some of the exciting youngsters at Ulster who are also now exciting youngsters in green (Henderson, Jackson, Marshall, Gilroy). A fine man, whose character is reflected by his reaction to being omitted from the initial Lions squad – he used the opportunity to recall the memory of the tragic Nevin Spence, and opined there was more to life.

Peter O’Mahony. Munster captain, and an important member of the squad. Has been excellent in red this season, and we will hopefully see him concentrating on 8 from here on, although that muddles things at national level where he’s most likely to play at 6. But he’s only bedding into the role with Munster, and handing him the national captaincy on top of that may seem like too much burden all at once. Still, he is presumably Frankie’s choice, and that has to count for something right?

Sean O’Brien.  Not an obvious choice as he looks more wrecking ball than strategist, but his game has matured recently, highlighted by his outstanding breakdown work in recent months.  Unduobtedly a key player for the incoming coach, and arguably now the best player in the country, but is he ready to lead it?  Probably not, but a possible wild-card nonetheless.

Paddy Wallace. Go on Joe, for a laugh. The righteous indignation would have us rolling in the aisles.

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Judgement Call

We are struggling to think of anything as unbelievable (in this sense of not being believable) as Dylan Hartley being sent off in a Premiership final for calling Wayne Barnes a “f*cking cheat”. Its just so crazy. Consider this:

  • He is captain of the Saints
  • It was one of the biggest games of his career
  • He had previously been warned by Barnes for verbals
  • He was due to fly out on a Lions tour in a matter of days
  • Barnes had flagged his desire not to be making high-profile decisions, following some previous controversies in Premiership playoffs (e.g. Chris Ashton getting binned for being lamped by Manu)

As sporting meltdowns go, it takes some topping – Zinedine Zidane and Richie Tennenbaum are about the only ones we can think of.

Hartley will miss the Lions tour, for which Rory “Nice-but-throws-awry” Best has been called up in his stead. Best is the classiest of chaps, as evidenced by his tweet in the aftermath of not being selected initially – he referred to how this paled into insignificance compared to the bigger things in life, such as the Nevin Spence tragedy.

Like injury being Ireland’s best selector, perhaps Hartley’s meltdown has been Gatty’s – there is a recent history of late callups playing key roles in Lions’ series (Paul Wallace, Tom Croft) and Besty, although clearly third choice right now, has a chance to do the same. Having said that, he is clearly third choice by now – unlike Tom Youngs (Premiership Player of the Year) and Richard Hibbert (standout hooker in the Six Nations), and wasn’t selected initially for a good reason – he simply wasn’t playing well enough.

What it also calls into question, however, is Gatty’s judgement – he considered Hartley to have the talent and mental capacity to thrive on a Lions tour – that assessment is in tatters after Saturday, and if the tour starts to go wrong, it will  be used as a stick to beat Gatty with. He’s been rowing back a bit since Saturday, talking about how he agonized afterwards had he made the right decision, and talked about Graham Rowntree’s input, but the buck stops with him, and he picked Hartley.

The Lions, more than any other team, consider that you are just minding the jersey for the next man, and the semi-mythic status of the red jersey reflects that. For example, Gerald Davies was just keeping his shirt warm for Ugo Monye, and he’ll pass it on to George North, and so on.

Without getting too teary about it, any discussion of the Lions is incomplete without a reference to “character” – is Player X a Lion, they’ll say, which has a greater implication than his ability – it talks to more earthy qualities, like smiling through midweek games with NSW Country and being a “good tourist”.  Hartley always struck us as an odd selection, even leaving aside our Besty-love – he routinely cracks under pressure, and has accumulated multiple bans. Gatty’s faith in him has been shredded in spectacular fashion – let’s hope he gets more calls right than wrong from here on.