Warren Gatland endorses Dylan Hartley's credentials to captain Lions next year
Warren Gatland has endorsed Dylan Hartley's credentials to captain the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand next year after noting his improved disciplinary record.
Now that Gatland has been reappointed head coach for the gruelling 10-fixture odyssey that culminates in a three-Test series against the All Blacks, attention turns to the identity of his assistants and skipper.
The 52-year-old Kiwi's tracksuit lieutenants will be announced in December, but it is the identity of the captain that will really set minds racing over the coming months.
Sam Warburton has been installed as bookmakers' favourite since Gatland was unveiled as head coach on Wednesday but his main rival is Hartley, who has led England to the Grand Slam and a 3-0 series whitewash of Australia under Eddie Jones.
Hartley was picked by Gatland for the 2013 tour Down Under only to then be ruled out after being suspended for verbally abusing referee Wayne Barnes in the Aviva Premiership final.
A dismal disciplinary record has stalked the Northampton hooker for much of his career, but Gatland has seen enough to view him as a viable contender.
"Dylan has always played on the edge and that has been one of the traits that has made him such a competitor as a player," Gatland said.
"He's obviously matured and he's done a great job with England. Eddie rates him incredibly highly. He has a lot of respect from the players as well.
"The pleasing thing is his discipline. He hasn't been suspended for a while. That's a big tick against his name. Hopefully he continues in that vein and continues to be successful.
"It's easier to select players who are coming in from a winning environment with a lot of confidence. It's the same when you are picking captains.
"There are players you're familiar with, that you have been leading already, that has certain advantage. Have you been on previous tours? There are lots of considerations.
"Apart from obvious names, there will be quite a few others (that) come into consideration by the end of the season."
The 2017 Lions face the most challenging odds in their history with a set of fixtures highlighted by a three Tests against the All Blacks, but also including five matches against Super Rugby teams and a clash with the Maori.
Adding to the task facing the Lions is an itinerary that includes five fixtures against Super Rugby teams and a clash with the Maori and scheduling that sees domestic finals being played just a week before the tour opener on June 3.
Gatland knows his reputation is on the line, but is armed with the conviction that the All Blacks can be toppled.
"Coaching the Lions isn't the safest environment to be in as a coach because if you lost the series things didn't look pretty afterwards," Gatland said.
"I knew how tough it was going to be and you've got to be successful because if you're not then a lot of people turn on you. That's the nature of the beast.
"I experienced part of that in 2013, but it makes you tougher, it makes you strong. I'm one of those people who doesn't dwell on the negatives, I always look at the positives.
"I know they're there, but they're what bring you down. If you talked to coaches in Wales, they would describe me as the eternal optimist. That's the way you've got to be.
"I've spoken about the lack of preparation time, how tough this tour is going to be - but I can't change that.
"If I start talking about that, if I start letting that affect me, then that's a negative and I have got to move on."