Gatland visit puts O’Driscoll in pole position for Lions armband
THE presence of Warren Gatland at Ireland's training camp yesterday has prompted speculation that the Lions coach was sounding out Brian O'Driscoll about becoming the first Irishman to captain the tourists for a second time.
The Lions coach has already spent time with English, Welsh and Scottish camps during the Six Nations, but now the calls for O'Driscoll to lead the summer tour to Australia are growing.
O'Driscoll has been one of Ireland's standout players in the tournament, and the legendary centre is one of the leading contenders for the Lions armband, along with England's Chris Robshaw and Sam Warburton of Wales.
"There are three or four individuals that people have been consistently talking about and I think this weekend may answer one or two of those questions," Gatland revealed.
"We will pick the squad first and then look at a captain.
"When you are looking at a captain and leadership, there are a number of things – how the player sets an example on and off the field in terms of discipline, but also how he carries himself and the respect he earns from his team-mates."
It is noteworthy that Gatland was the man who fast-tracked O'Driscoll into the Ireland senior side in 1999 – before he had even played for Leinster.
The New Zealander, in charge of Ireland from 1998 to 2001, was a fan of the former captain long before he became a household name, handing him his debut against Australia in the summer of 1999.
The New Zealander was an 'un-involved' observer of Ireland's training session yesterday and also sat in on the team meeting at Carton House last night.
After three selection meetings, with his Lions assistant coaches – England pair Andy Farrell and Graham Rowntree – Gatland says only 23 of 37 potential places have been filled.
"I would say consistently there have been 22 or 23 that have been on that list, so I would say there is still around a third of the squad up for grabs," said Gatland, who will also consider players such as Ireland lock Paul O'Connell, wing Simon Zebo and Wales flanker Dan Lydiate, who have missed Six Nations action because of injury, if they prove their fitness next month.
But, pointedly, there was good news for England as Gatland admitted that any side who win a Grand Slam can "deservedly and rightly" expect to have a large contingent from their side in the Lions.