Relaxed, in-form Warburton the right Lions captain

Date published: April 21 2017

The affable Lions captain makes the perfect ambassador for a tough tour ahead, but his form has crucially also returned.

The physio’s room isn’t exactly new territory for Sam Warburton. Named Lions captain for a second time this week – the only other player to receive that honour being Martin Johnson – the 28-year-old is in the middle of another stint of letting his knee recover following a medial ligament sprain.

Warburton has suffered that injury enough times before, on four occasions in the last eight years, that he even felt confident enough coming off the pitch against Ulster to grade the severity of his injury. Not wanting to offend the Cardiff Blues physios, he kept his mouth shut.

“I have an ongoing joke with the physios. I pick up so many similar injuries that I can almost diagnose myself on the pitch,” he chuckled at Wednesday’s announcement of his captaincy.

“When I was coming off I knew it was the medial ligament in my left knee. They normally grade them one to four, and I didn’t want to be cheeky enough to grade it, but I was pretty much spot on.

“I have done it in the past about four times in the last eight years, and it has never kept me out for eight weeks and I knew this was not as severe.”

Warburton can see the funny side now, but at the time knew another knock to the knee might have led to a rupture, almost certainly ending his chances of touring with the Lions let alone being named captain.

A few minutes listening to Warburton process questions about his form, his greater experience and the challenge ahead makes it obvious why he has been chosen to lead Wales and the Lions in the past. There are few frills but nor is he a quiet character. Warburton speaks with an understated authenticity.

Paul O’Connell told theĀ BBC: In 2013 in Australia – Sam didn’t say a lot.

“Myself and a few others were chirping at people and staying on top of people a little bit, but when Sam elected to speak you could hear a pin drop.”

Part of the reason that Warburton felt the need to step down as Wales captain earlier this year prior to the Six Nations was that if his form wasn’t good enough, how could he then lead the side and deliver those messages with the same conviction.

“Now it feels a lot easier to say yes because I know I can look after the performance,” he explained.

“The captains I have respected the most are the ones that have gone on the field and emptied the tank for the guys they are playing with.”

That respect for those captains is evident in his play. Warburton might not make as many line breaks or have the speed of a Justin Tipuric, but his work-rate is right at the top in Europe and his tackle counts and turnover rates during the Six Nations were exceptional.

And as a leader, the bright lights that come with leading the Lions are far easier for Warburton to cope with now than in 2013, an experience that while it ended in success with a series win against Australia, he freely admits was a challenge.

“I’m a lot more relaxed this time around. In 2013 I found that really tough,” Warburton said.

“I was only 24 at the time and since then I’ve been on summer tours, Rugby World Cups, another 30-40 caps and a lot from a form and injury perspective.

“Even though I still feel like a young player, if I look at the squad I’m one of the experienced guys. I don’t feel the same pressure as four years ago.”

by Ben Coles