British and Irish Lions 2021 tour captain Alun Wyn Jones knows he is following in the footsteps of greatness.
While Jones has captained the Lions to a series win in Australia in the decisive third 2013 Test in Sydney, it will be the first time he is in overall charge on the field.
Lions legends like John Dawes, Willie John McBride, Phil Bennett, Martin Johnson, Brian O’Driscoll, Paul O’Connell, and Sam Warburton have all led Lions test parties. Now it’s Jones’ turn.
One of those players, the 1971 series winning skipper Dawes, was laid to rest on the same day as Jones was named the 2021 captain.
“There is a very real realisation of the people who have come before me,” said Jones.
“It’s important for me to say it’s John Dawes’ funeral who was Lions captain in 1971 and my thoughts are with him and his family.
“It’s not lost on me what the previous captains have achieved in the Lions jersey and their respective international shirts which has allowed them to get to where they have.”
Jones will lead the Lions in South Africa this summer on what will be his fourth successive tour among the best British and Irish players, during which he has played in nine Lions Tests.
It provides another significant entry to Jones’ CV, one that already features five Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and two World Cup semi-final appearances.
Jones also holds the world record for most Test match appearances, having clocked up 157 in Wales and Lions colours, and his powers show no sign of waning as he approaches the 16th year of his international career.
England pair Maro Itoje and Owen Farrell were also viewed as major contenders for the Lions role, but 35-year-old Jones won head coach Warren Gatland’s vote although he missed the all important phone call initially.
“I missed it as I was doing something at the back of the house, I was actually doing my Sunday evening spin just to get my legs going for Monday,” said Jones.
“I saw the name on the missed list – it was a very succinct, ‘Give me a call’. I sort of knew what it was about, so I called him back. He said, ‘How are you? How’s it going? I’d like you to lead the Lions’.
“I wasn’t playing hard to get as it’s a big thing in the rugby world and in someone’s career. To hear those words and that question is special. I was more than happy to accept.”
Discretion was required from Jones although he admitted his young daughters were none the wiser.
“I told my wife, the kids probably don’t understand who Daddy plays for. They know he plays in red or black on TV .
“My eldest thinks I’ve played for Man United a few times, but I’ve got to explain it’s the right colour but wrong sport!
“It’s water off a duck’s back for kids. I’ll probably say, ‘Daddy’s going to work again”, as that’s what it was in the Nations Cup and Six Nations. With FaceTime, my six-year-old has her own account now so she can contact me whenever she needs to.
“I’ll try and use all the tech to keep it as normal as I can for the kids and for me.
“I’m fortunate for the support of my wife, mum and sister. My dad passed a few years ago, so I’m very fortunate to have the support of my family. They’re hugely proud.”
So a fourth tour, 12 years apart and he knows what to expect as he looks back on South Africa in 2009.
“I have a lot more experience than I did back then,” said Jones.
“I was probably green going into that tour and started the first Test, the build-up games were pretty spot on.
“You can’t come out slow against the Boks. We were up against it, and then were chasing the game from the first Test. You’ve got to start fast.
“The midweek games have got to be spot on as you’ve got to be ready for that first Test. It’s like a mini-season within a season, with all those games before you’ve got to take everything you can out of that.”
The official captaincy unveiling was very different because of Covid-19 protocols with Jones actually at Wales’ Vale of Glamorgan base but beamed in as a hologram into the London studio.
“It was akin to Star Trek wasn’t it? I didn’t know if they were going to put Dr Spock in the background! It was a bit different,” said Jones
“No team has gone to South Africa at what is hopefully the tail end of a pandemic before.
“It’s potentially a smaller squad and there are all those challenges before we even take to the field. In many ways that sort of adversity and challenges can galvanise us.
“In a way there might be benefits, as we can’t go too far from where our base is. There’s going to be that bubble, we’ll spend a lot of time with each other, in each others’ pockets.
“The balance is the factor we’ll force. I’m sure we’ll work hard, knowing Gats, but you’ve got to be able to unscrew the lid at times and build the bonds away from the pitch which will be important as the tour goes on.”
The relatively equal nature of the 37-man party of 11 Englishmen, 10 Welsh players and eight each from Scotland and Ireland could help that gelling process.
“It shows how competitive the Six Nations was,” said Jones.
“In many ways I’d like to think it makes it easier, but you don’t lose your identity regardless of what nation you’re from.
“When you pull the Lions badge on, you’re a Lion and there is one common goal, to win the Test series.
“It’s amazing when you take the field whether it’s training or playing. It’s pretty unifying, quickly with the Test match animals who are in the squad.”
Wise words from the oldest member of the squad with the youngest member Louis Rees Zammit also set to benefit from this experience.
Jones was initially the youngest player in South Africa in 2009 and had the honour of looking after the Lions mascot before Leigh Halfpenny and Keith Earls joined the tour.
That will now pass onto 20-year-old Gloucester wing Rees-Zammit ahead of the 2021 tour.
“Make sure he gets a leash for the Lion, that’s probably my first bit of advice,” said Jones.
“Watching Zammo come in, he’s not short of confidence or shy. He’s in a very special place as a sportsman and rugby player – you get to be in the zone as it were. We saw that on more than a few occasions in the Six Nations.
“For him to be in this squad at this time of his career is hugely exciting. I can’t wait to see him in the Lions jersey on the tour.”