All the men who have captained the famous rugby side in Test matches on tour
To lead the Lions is a huge honour for a rugby player from the British Isles. Some names are well-known, such as Martin Johnson, Willie John McBride and Bill Beaumont. But what about the war heroes, maths PhDs, boxers and reverends who have also captained this most exclusive of teams?
Here are the men who have captained the British & Irish Lions in Test matches on tours…
British & Irish Lions Captains – 2017-1997
2013 & 2017 – Sam Warburton (Lion #800, Wales), Australia & New Zealand
The only captain in Lions history who has led the side more than once and avoided defeat on both occasions. Also the youngest captain in history at only 24 in 2013.
It’s interesting to remember that the years before his appointment as the winning captain on the Australia tour weren’t without their ripples. Famously red-carded in the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final against France, he rebounded to lead Wales to the 2012 Grand Slam, before his place came under serious pressure from Justin Tipuric.
Warburton reprised his captaincy four years later for the final International matches of his career. He led the Lions to a famous drawn series against New Zealand, returning from injury for the second and third Tests, before retiring the following year.
2017 – Peter O’Mahony (Lion #832, Ireland) v New Zealand
The Lions captaincy looked a long way off for Peter O’Mahony at the beginning of 2017 –it seemed unlikely he’d make the touring party after losing his place in Ireland’s first-choice back row. An injury to Jamie Heaslip was the opportunity he needed – delivering a Man of the Match display to deny England a Grand Slam.
In New Zealand, O’Mahony starred in the two biggest warm-up games of the tour against the Crusaders and the Maori All Blacks. With squad captain Sam Warburton only fit enough for the bench, the Munsterman was given the honour of leading the Lions out for the first Test.
It was almost the perfect Cinderella story, but his side fell to a 30-15 defeat, and Warburton returned to lead the side for the final Tests, with O’Mahony not even making the match-day squads.
2013 – Alun Wyn Jones (Lion #761, Wales) v Australia & Japan
Those with good memories may recall the original 2021 tour captain leading the Lions in the decisive Test eight years ago. All momentum was against the Lions in 2013, with Australia winning the second Test and Sam Warburton out injured for the decider.
It was some testament to his leadership that the Lions triumphed 41-16, probably their most dominant Test victory in recent decades. His team talk from that day will join the Himalayan giants of rugby speeches.
The only player in the professional era to start nine consecutive Tests for the Lions.
2009 – Paul O’Connell (Lion #738, Ireland), South Africa
Followed in the footsteps of Willie John McBride – an Irish second-row who was the British & Irish Lions captain for an iconic tour of South Africa. Picked as captain by Sir Ian McGeechan for his perceived similarities to Martin Johnson.
The Test matches are still spoken about in hushed tones as some of the most physical games in rugby history, with the Lions falling to a heart-breaking 2-1 defeat. O’Connell had to both lead his team and keep Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha quiet – a second-row battle for the ages.
He played the first Test against Australia n 2013 before suffering a fractured arm.
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2005 – Gareth Thomas (Lion #747, Wales), New Zealand
Captaining the Lions to heavy defeats in 2005 seemed a thankless task, but Thomas took to the task with grace and skill. He moved into the outside-centre shirt, a direct replacement for the stricken Brian O’Driscoll.
The second Test, his first as captain, started brilliantly, with Thomas scoring underneath the posts after only two minutes. However, after that Dan Carter took over and the Lions fell to a 48-18 defeat, followed by a 38-19 loss in the final Test.
He captained Wales in the 2007 World Cup and had the honour of becoming the first Welshman to win 100 caps for his country.
2005 – Brian O’Driscoll (Lion #697, Ireland), New Zealand
A star of the 2001 tour, he is one of only four players to have gone on four Lions tours. Made Ireland captain in 2003, it was an obvious choice for Clive Woodward to name the Dubliner captain as one of the best players in the British Isles,
However, his tour ended in controversial fashion in the opening minutes of the first Test, sustaining a dislocated shoulder after a spear tackle from Keven Mealamu and Tana Umaga.
He played in two Tests in each of the following two series, but was famously dropped by Warren Gatland ahead of the final Test in 2013.
1997 & 2001 – Martin Johnson (Lion #658, England), South Africa & Australia
The first man to captain the British & Irish Lions twice. Given the role in 1997 thanks to his nailed-on selection for the Test team, despite having never led England at that point. At 6ft 7in and nearly 19st, the Leicester forward was instrumental in a physical 2-1 triumph over the Springboks, making him only the second Lions captain in the 20th Century to win in South Africa.
Four years later and he’d pilot the team in Australia – but the Wallabies won the series 2-1 despite the visitors comfortably winning the first Test. He went on to captain England to their 2003 World Cup win and coached the national side between 2008 and 2011.