London,- Dylan Hartley's chances of captaining the British and Irish Lions in New Zealand later this year have "gone backwards", with Alun Wyn Jones now in pole position to lead the combined side against the world champions, according to former skipper Gavin Hastings.
Scotland great Hastings, the Lions captain on their tour of New Zealand in 1993, is one of three former Lions skippers, along with Brian O'Driscoll and Martin Johnson, who believe Jones is the right man for the job.
Second-row forward Jones only recently became Wales captain in succession to Sam Warburton but captained the Lions in the decisive and victorious third Test against Australia four years ago when Warburton was out injured.
Hartley has led England to 16 successive Test wins, just two shy of world champions New Zealand's all-time record for a top-tier nation of 18, with the Northampton hooker in charge for last season's Six Nations Grand Slam.
Yet in both England's opening two wins over France and Wales in this season's Six Nations, New Zealand-born hooker Hartley has been substituted before the hour mark, with Jamie George impressing off the bench.
Being certain of a starting place in the Test side is regarded as essential for a Lions captain, and even though Jones made a couple of questionable calls in declining kickable penalties during last weekend's 21-16 defeat by England in Cardiff, Hastings believes he is the natural choice to lead the team.
"I think Jones is out on his own," Hastings said Thursday. "Dylan Hartley's gone backwards a wee bit. I think Jones is showing his characteristics as a leader of men.
"He's a guy that's been around the block more than once. No-one else (is in the frame)."
Ireland hero O'Driscoll, the Lions captain for the early part of their 2005 tour of New Zealand before being injured in the first Test, added: "The front-runner has to be Alun Wyn Jones, he captained the Lions in the final game in 2013, he's respected in New Zealand and you have to anticipate he's going to be a Test starter. He certainly would be on my team.
"Alun Wyn is probably the front-runner at the moment but there's lots to happen between now and the announcement of the squad."
Johnson, who led the Lions to a 1997 series victory in South Africa before lifting the 2003 World Cup as England skipper, said Jones was the leading candidate from among the existing Home Nations captains who also include Ireland's Rory Best and Scotland's Greig Laidlaw.
Best, like Hartley is a hooker, while scrum-half Laidlaw will miss the rest of the Six Nations after suffering an ankle injury during last weekend's loss to France.
"All four nations' captains have a chance, though Greig is out of the tournament which is unfortunate," Johnson told BBC Wales Sport.
"You've got two hookers, but I thought Jones played really well so maybe he'll have his nose slightly in front," added Johnson, himself a former second row.
"He's an experienced player, been out there before, playing pretty well."
The Lions will be bidding to win just their second series in New Zealand following their celebrated 1971 triumph when they face the All Blacks in a three-Test campaign in June and July.