Comment: After a tough weekend for Lions captaincy contenders, two Irishmen move into the box seat
Conor Murray, the Ireland scrum-half, has emerged as a new contender for the captaincy of the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand after the third round of the Six Nations Championship damaged the chances of several candidates.
Warren Gatland, the Lions head coach, has indicated that his first choice is likely to come from one of the captains of the four home nations, but has not ruled out the possibility of looking outside that pool of contenders.
That prospect appears more likely after question marks were raised about the captaincy of both England hooker Dylan Hartley and his Wales counterpart Alun Wyn Jones last weekend.
The momentum that had been building behind Owen Farrell as one of those contenders from outside ‘the big four’ also stalled as the England vice-captain had his poorest game of the championship in the controversial victory over Italy.
Murray in contrast was vaunted for masterminding Ireland’s hard-fought victory over France, delivering his finest display since his man-of-the-match display in the historic victory over New Zealand last November.
The Munster scrum-half is not renowned for a vocal presence on the pitch, but leads by his actions and game management and one thing is certain, on current form this season, he will be one of the first names down on Gatland’s Test team.
That cannot be said of Hartley, who has yet to find his form - no doubt in part due to the lack of rugby he had going into the championship - and the fact that England players took so long to come to terms with Italy’s shock tactics at the ruck at Twickenham on Saturday raised question marks about his leadership.
Alun Wyn Jones also found his leadership under scrutiny when his decision to kick a penalty to the posts when his side were trailed 16-13 appeared to be over-ruled by his team-mates only for the scoring opportunity to be squandered at the resultant line-out in the heavy defeat by Scotland.
That follows the debate about why Wales turned down two kickable penalties in the first-half of their narrow defeat by England.
Sam Warburton, the Lions captain in 2013, has since seen his stock rise after a couple of impressive displays but his fortunes could be linked to Wales, who will need two finish the championship with two wins to thrust their players back into contention after successive defeats by England and Scotland.
While Murray remains a 6-1 outsider for the Lions job along with Farrell, the smart money appears to be heading to Ireland hooker Rory Best however after his impressive return to the side after missing the victory over Italy because of illness.
Best’s line-out throwing in the inclement conditions was immaculate, with Ireland winning 22 out of 22 while the Ireland captain was on the pitch and his experience and leadership nous were critical.
He, like Murray, would also be one of the first names on the team sheet, and Gatland hinted last November that he was the frontrunner for the Lions job, having guided his side to victories over South Africa, New Zealand and Australia last year.
The only certainty however is that spell-binding nature of the debate will go down to the wire on the final round of the Championship, when so much else will also be on the line.