WARREN GATLAND has dropped the biggest hint yet that Maro Itoje will captain the British and Irish Lions in South Africa next year.
Lock Itoje is one of a number of contenders, alongside his England skipper Owen Farrell and Welsh legend Alun Wyn Jones.
The last four tours to South Africa have been captained by second rows as the Lions have sought to fight fire with fire against the abrasive Boks.
Willie John McBride led the 1974 side dubbed ‘The Invincibles’, Bill Beaumont was top dog in 1980, Martin Johnson headed the victorious 1997 crew and Paul O’Connell was leader in the near-miss of 2009.
Coach Gatland said of Itoje: “He’s an intelligent player and intelligent man and has been incredibly successful in his career.
“He would definitely be in contention as one of the possibilities as captain.
“It’s about picking the squad and then saying who do we think will be captain material.
“Ideally, it’s somebody who has come from a team that has been pretty successful.
“The next question is if we were picking the Test team now, is there a good chance this person would make the team?”
Itoje looks nailed on to play in the Tests and has some captaincy experience, leading England to their Under-20 World Cup win in 2014 and Saracens to the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
Aged just 25, he has won four Premierships and three European Cups with Sarries and two Six Nations with England, as well as starring on the last Lions tour to New Zealand.
Gatland added: “Itoje is the name that keeps cropping up. You look at that and go, well, there are some pretty good second-rows around and he’s not bad.
“You have Courtney Lawes and George Kruis. How’s Alun Wyn Jones going at that time? There’s James Ryan. There’s no doubt about Itoje’s quality.”
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South Africa broke new ground by winning the World Cup with their first black captain in Siya Kolisi.
And a head-to-head between the pair would send interest in the country off the scale.
Gatland has been named the top coach of the last 60 years by readers of Rugby World as the magazine celebrates its anniversary.
Also included in the birthday issue are interviews with greats of the game, such as Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams, Beaumont, David Campese, Sean Fitzpatrick, Richard Sharp, Keith Jarrett, Sam Warburton, Sir Clive Woodward and Keith Wood.
Readers also name their best player for each decade since the magazine started.
Read the full interview with Warren Gatland in the 60th anniversary edition of Rugby World magazine, on sale Tuesday.