Representing the Lions on tours of the Southern Hemisphere is a honour Gareth Edwards has cherished all of his life. The legendary Welsh scrum-half is eagerly looking forward to travelling with the class of 2009 to South Africa next summer in his role as ambassador for the tour sponsors HSBC. Edwards, who featured in a triumphant 1971 team in New Zealand and then took part in an unbeaten tour of South Africa three years later, stressed the importance of the role of the captain.
Edwards was in awe of Willie John McBride, the Lions captain on the second of those tours and a teammate on the first one. It will be hard for Ian McGeechan, the coach of next year's tourists to find such a commanding figure as that uncompromising Irish forward, but he believes the man who gets the nod will rise to the occasion. Three candidates stand out in the opinion of the experienced Edwards, who was capped on 53 occasions for Wales. His fellow Welshman Ryan Jones would have been a shoe-in for the role if the tour had taken place this year in the aftermath of a Wales grand slam in the Six Nations competition. A year on, Jones, in Edwards' opinion, faces his strongest competition from the Irish duo of Brian O'Driscoll, who endured a torrid injury-hit time when captaining the Lions in New Zealand in 2005, and the powerful lock forward Paul O'Connell.
There appears to be no realistic challenger from the Scottish ranks while Edwards feels the claims of England's Phil Vickery and Steve Borthwick have diminished during the turbulent period of transition under new coach Martin Johnson. "Ryan Jones was ticking all the boxes at the end of last season after the Welsh grand slam but you have to remember that team was nearly dead and buried at half time against England at Twickenham. So fortunes can change dramatically at this level," he said.
"He would be the first to say that he has not played as well as he did last year in the first few months of the season. But he showed glimpses of it against New Zealand [on Nov 22] so he could be back on the case. "Brian O'Driscoll is also back in contention. He is looking more of a threat now. Last year he wasn't quite there but he was only being measured against what we have come to expect from him. He has got the experience of being a Lion before, twice over, He would have been very disappointed with what happened to him in New Zealand. Will that be a motivating factor? I don't know.
"Then there is his Irish colleague Paul O'Donnell. He is also in with a good chance in my view. I think it is down to those three though." Edwards feels the role of Lions captain is more important than the national team captaincy because the man in charge has to embrace the different cultures of the four nations in a short space of time. "There are seven fixtures before the first Test match and the captain has to stamp his authority on the squad in that time," he said.
McBride had no problems asserting himself as a leader. "When he talked, you listened, it was as simple as that. His presence motivated the team. He was a big man who took the fight to the opposition. He took no nonsense. He was a peacemaker if needed but he could also look after himself." That begged the question about McBride's infamous call of "99" in South Africa in 1974 - a coded signal for the Lions to pile into their opposite numbers at the first hint of trouble on the field.
It was described at the time as "getting our retaliation in first" against the physical Springboks. "That was a myth," said a grinning Edwards when pressed about the 99 call. firstname.lastname@example.org