Lions captain Alun Wyn Jones feels hand of history on his shoulder

Scratch away the gloss they have slapped across the British & Irish Lions and there is a single, simple beautiful idea underneath. An idea protected by a set of values that have kept it alive for 133 years and still do now, even when, like so much else about what makes the game great, it is under threat from a corporate sports culture which only worries about the best way to package, present, and sell it – another product in an already overcrowded marketplace. Those values persist because the men who hold them pass them on from one generation to the next. Men such as Warren Gatland and his captain, Alun Wyn Jones.

When Gatland rang Jones last Sunday evening, the call went to voicemail. Jones was out in his garden, working on his exercise bike, “Sunday evening spin to get my legs going for Monday”. Just one last little piece in his weekly workout routine that means, at 35, he will be the oldest Lions captain since Johnny Hammond in 1896.

“I saw his name on the missed calls list, and he’d left a succinct voicemail: ‘Give me a call when you get this.’ So I did and he said: ‘I’d like you to lead the Lions.’” Jones paused. The silence went on just long enough for Gatland to begin to wonder what was going on at the other end. “It wasn’t apprehension,” Jones explained afterwards. “I wasn’t playing hard to get, but there was a bit of a pause just because it is a very big thing in a career.” And there, in the silence, a little sense of what this means to him, even after all those international caps and Test matches, titles, and trophies.

“There’s a very definite realisation of the people who have gone before me,” Jones said. “It’s very poignant to think it is John Dawes’s funeral today. He was a Lions captain in ’71, so my thoughts go to him and his family. Like I say it’s not lost on me, what those previous captains have achieved.”

For Gatland and Jones, the tour is a turn full circle. They both started with the Lions on the last South Africa tour in 2009: Gatland was the forwards coach, under Ian McGeechan; Jones was 23, and “very green”. That tour, as Gatland said again on Thursday, was all about restoring pride in the shirt after the disastrous defeat against the All Blacks in 2005. It was also one of the most brutal series ever played. All these years later, Shaun Edwards, who was the defence coach, still describes it as the most intense rugby he has seen, in either code.

What Gatland learned there shaped the Lions for the next decade, through their victorious tour of Australia, their drawn series against New Zealand and – judging by the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy squad he has picked this time – it is still a major influence on his thinking now. And of course Jones has been right there with him, all the way through. He has now started nine Lions Tests back‑to-back. He has already led them in one, too, the third and deciding game against Australia in 2013. It was only the second time Jones had led a team in a Test, and Gatland was under heavy pressure because he had just dropped Brian O’Driscoll.

There is a clip of the team-talk Jones gave before that game: “Faz said there’s no tomorrow,” he tells his players, “but there is, there’s a tomorrow with this jersey, where you will wear it, and it will remain on you, until you finish playing, until you die, and there’s a tomorrow without this jersey. We have got 80 minutes to choose which one we want.” Eight years later, he is still wearing his. Older, and wiser now, with young kids: “They still don’t really understand, they know Daddy plays in red on TV, my eldest thinks I play for Man Utd,” he said. When the time comes to leave on tour, he will tell them: “Daddy’s got to work again.”

Truth is, on a Lions tour captaining the team on the field is the easy half of the job. Every player out there is a leader of one sort or another. “Look at the number of people who are captain of their countries, or their clubs, there’s double figures who could do it,” Jones said.

The hard part is bringing them all together in the days and weeks beforehand, in upholding, and passing on, those values, with the added challenge this time of doing it all while they are locked up in a biosecure bubble shuttling between hotels and stadiums. “Ultimately whatever nation you are from, when you put that badge, you’re a Lion,” Jones said. “And there’s one common goal, which is to win the Test series, and it’s amazing when you take a field for that job of work, it’s very unifying very quickly.”