Sam Warburton now sits alongside Martin Johnson as the only man to be named British & Irish Lions tour skipper for two tours running; he sits among the greats who have donned the red shirt, but he is the quiet man, a reluctant captain.
He does not stomp when he walks, it’s much more delicate than that. But present him with a ruck at a time when his team is flagging, or lacking self-belief, and the back-row will throw body and self-regard at it.
“Martin Johnson was a fairly quiet bloke and went around his day-to-day business, not really upsetting anyone, so he’s a bit like Sam,” is ex-Cardiff Blues and Wales teammate Tom Shanklin’s take on Warburton’s captaincy.
“Sam never shirks any tackle, he’s 100 percent in training and the games and there’s no ammunition on him. He’s clean cut and a tough, tough bloke on the field. There’ll be plenty of talkers there and he’s the obvious, and right choice.”
On Wednesday, Warburton — nursing his knee injury — was unveiled in the same room as 2013 in the small corner of West London. There were familiar personnel on the stage, and is living proof of Warren Gatland’s belief in the importance of continuity from their victorious tour to Australia in 2013 to the task awaiting them in 2017.
Sam Warburton leads out the Lions in the second Test against the Wallabies in 2013 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
As in 2013, he has been confirmed as Lions skipper despite having surrendered the Wales captaincy in the previous championship to focus on his own form. In 2013 it was for their final match against England, this time around it was for the whole tournament. “It allows me to have a little bit more freedom,” Warburton said of relinquishing the Wales captaincy ahead of the 2017 Six Nations. “There comes a time in your career you need to focus on yourself.” The reluctant captain.
There was a school of thought it would be in his best intentions to hand the Lions honour elsewhere, allowing him to play without the burden, leading to Alun Wyn Jones and Rory Best being elevated to potential candidates for the captaincy. But Gatland keeps on coming back to him with Warburton’s affable, competitive nature and proven ability to unite four nations under one badge irresistible to Gatland.
In Warburton’s book ‘Lions Triumphant’, which followed the 2013 tour, he spoke of how he doubted his own ability to deliver the stereotypical ‘Once more unto the breach- pre-match rallying call. Gatland, in response, showed him a video of his on-field communication with teammates and general never-say-die application as a sign of his leadership brilliance.
“He will set an unbelievable standard on and off the field,” Shanklin, who toured with the Lions in 2005, says. “He’s incredibly professional and is a classic lead-by-example player.
“He’s not a big talker, though he has come out of his shell since I’ve known him — but then you would be quiet when you have the likes of Martyn Williams, Gethin Jenkins and me around you. He’s brilliant on the field, he’s a great player.
“He’s very media-savvy. He always says the right thing and doesn’t get himself into trouble. He doesn’t give anyone any ammunition against him — he’s like the Gary Lineker of rugby.”
Back in 2013, Gatland was also quick to highlight how well Warburton communicated with officials. His quietly spoken, respectful tone, was met with a sympathetic ear, rather than a re-assertion of authority. Such a trait is key in the boiling pot of Test rugby, on New Zealand soil.
Warren Gatland named Sam Warburton Wales captain for both the 2011 and 2015 Rugby World Cups (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
But he will have to stay clear of those troublesome injuries. Though he was fit when unveiled in 2013, he missed the opening two matches of the tour with a knee injury. This time around he is currently recovering from a similar injury, with the original timeframe seeing him return a handful of days before the Lions fly to New Zealand. Gatland has backed his man despite these question marks over fitness.
Challenges do not come bigger for Warburton, but the young Sam will be brimming with excitement. Playing against the All Blacks for the Lions has always been a dream for Warburton. As he said in his post-2013 tour book, he used to wear the jersey from the 2005 tour – complete with the number seven on the back – almost as a second skin. But that soon gave way to the desire of winning the prestigious jersey in its own right.
There are no guarantees for Warburton. In his interview with ESPN, Gatland was pained to emphasise that his 2017 captain is not a nailed-on Test starter, he would have to earn his place. Warburton now has to combine form with leadership, but a section of his press conference before the 2013 game against the Reds — his first, but the Lions’ third match of the tour — highlights why he is Gatland’s ideal captain for this tour.
“It’s not in my nature to be complacent,” Warburton said. He wanted the nervousness of team selection meetings and used that as motivation — he’ll get that this time around with so much competition in the back-row.
“He is the right man,” Shanklin said. “He’s had a lot of pressure on him and showed a real, strong mental toughness in the Six Nations.
“What you want from a captain is, someone to make the right decisions on the field and to be one of your best players who doesn’t make mistakes. Sam doesn’t make mistakes, he’s the best in the northern hemisphere over the ball and he’s in the action as well as it’s hard to captain the team from a million miles away. And he’ll set the standard and expect everyone to follow, without dropping below that level.
“When you see the journey Sam’s been through to get back to the level he’s at now, he’s so mentally tough. You’re a special bloke if you can do that. It’s a credit to him that he’s back to his best and he’s been rewarded with the captaincy.”
And therein lies why Warburton — the quiet, reluctant captain — is Gatland’s ideal man to lead the Lions to New Zealand.
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Quiet man Warburton takes his rightful place as Lions captain
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