Sam Warburton will captain Wales in their four-match autumn Test series and in next year's Six Nations in a significant departure by the men in red before the Lions tour to New Zealand next summer.

Warburton led the Lions in Australia in 2013 and, with Warren Gatland taking a year-long sabbatical from Wales before the 10-match trip to New Zealand for which he will be head coach, is the leading contender for the armband, closely pursued by England's Dylan Hartley who has enjoyed a career resurrection under Eddie Jones.

Wales normally delay naming their captain until after the squad to prepare for the autumn series or the Six Nations has been announced, with Warburton admitting this month that he usually found out through the media. But Rob Howley, who has taken over as head coach from Gatland for the season, has already spoken to him.

"Sam is a great captain and is the best player to take us forward" said Howley. "He has captained the Lions once and I am sure he is in their thoughts again, but the challenge for every player is to do well in November and the Six Nations. You have to perform for your country to be in contention for next summer.


"There is no doubt that the rest of us in the Six Nations have to respond to what England have achieved under Eddie Jones. He said the other day that, given their playing population, they should be winning the tournament every year and we all have to do something about that. They have got their house in order under Eddie and we look forward to playing them in Cardiff next year."

Howley is Wales's interim head coach for the second time after filling the role in 2012-13 while Gatland was preparing for a Lions tour but there are two differences now: Gatland will have no involvement with the Wales side, having been given dispensation to return for the games against New Zealand and Australia four years ago, although he will have a say in national player contract talks as Wales look to persuade players based outside the country to return home, and he has said he will be standing down after the 2019 World Cup.

"I do not see this as an audition for Warren's job," said Howley, who added he did not want to talk about whether he would be interested in succeeding Gatland. "It is different to four years ago, but my focus is on the next 10 months and making sure that when the draw is made for the World Cup next May, we are where we need to be in the world rankings."

Wales's defeat to Australia in a fourth international in 2012 meant they dropped out of the top eight of the world rankings and, in the World Cup draw held a few weeks later, they were in a pool with England and the Wallabies.

"We are doing things a bit differently," said Howley. "Our relations with the head coaches of the regions have been informal in the eight years the management team has been together, but we have changed that and are working closely with them. There is an emphasis on improving the skills of players and the opening weeks of the season have shown that the work put in is bearing fruit.

"We were the top try scorers in last season's Six Nations and we scored five against New Zealand in the first two Tests. We are evolving our game and the task is to match New Zealand, who are setting the standards. It means improving our home record from the 70% record in the last three years. The Principality Stadium is an inspiration to opponents and I want it to inspire our players more."

Howley would be released by Wales if the Lions wanted him to be attack coach next year, as he was in 2009 and 2013. "I am not thinking about that," he said. "Team Wales comes first and my task is ensuring that we reach another level in November and beyond."

- The Guardian