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Maro Itoje as Lions captain? | Stuart Barnes on rugby's troubling history with race

Stuart Barnes believes that Maro Itoje would be the ideal captain for the British & Irish Lio...

Stuart Barnes believes that Maro Itoje would be the ideal captain for the British & Irish Lions tour - and not for reasons of political correctness.

Barnes joined Monday Night Rugby on the back of his Sunday Times column on the legacy of the Lions' tours to South Africa and 'silence' on apartheid.

As the world feels on a precipice with regard to race relations, Barnes believes that the side being led by Itoje totally on merit could provide a salve to some wounds.

"It was a great thing when the ANC won the election because it had such a great history as a rugby nation," Barnes said of his approach to South Africa's history.

"The rugby nation came second, so I was very lucky to tour in 1984 when apartheid had come to an end. But it has always fascinated me.

British Lions' Angus Cameron puts on his boots for a training session at Chelmsford Hall School in Eastbourne, shortly before the squad's departure for South Africa.

"It is close to my heart - some people may say I don't have one - but if I did have a heart then it would be there. It is a troubled country and, like all things, it is not just colour but class.

"The whole thing goes back to the fact that it is an empire sport - rugby and cricket were born out of empire.

"Australia, with their aboriginal policies, I could have included them in the piece but I didn't feel that they were quite at the same level in terms of rugby 'brand' as the Lions, All Blacks or Springboks."

Barnes moved on to another aspect that he feels is key to moving forward the conversation on race relations, after - in his eyes - rugby's troublesome history.

"I would take Maro Itoje irrespective of colour - white, green, yellow, pink, black - I don't care. He would be my Lions captain and I have thought that for probably two years.

British and Irish Lions Maro Itoje celebrates after the second test of the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour at Westpac Stadium, Wellington.

"But there is a very beneficial symbolism involved and a degree of atonement that comes from doing the wrong thing.

"It is not a politically-correct decision; I am of the left but I have always been wary of political correctness - it unnerves me.

"But I think that even if Itoje had been behind someone else, I would have said to take him anyway as captain - I would have bent that way.

"What is happening now and has been happening for the last few years, what is not said, means that perhaps you would have said to take a black man as captain anyway."

Maro Itoje

Barnes reiterates that doing so would be based on merit of Itoje's performances for England and for his club side.

"The great thing is from a Lions perspective is that he is a great captain, an extremely articulate man.

"A shot of him shaking hands with Siya Kolisi before and at the end of the series would be more important than the Lions winning or drawing, or South Africa winning, drawing or losing."

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa lifts the Webb Ellis Cup with Siya Kolisi of South Africa following their victory against England in the Rugby World Cup 2019 at the Yokohama Stadium.

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