New role can bring out Warburton’s best

Date published: February 11 2017

Suggesting that Sam Warburton’s excellence with Wales and the British and Irish Lions has gone under appreciated initially sounds odd.

Warburton after all is the youngest Lions captain of all time at the age of 24, a multiple Six Nations winner and one of the finest operators in defence and over the breakdown to have ever come out of Wales.

Too often though the focus has been on what Warburton isn’t rather than on his merits. He is unlikely to be pulling off an impression of free-running Ardie Savea on a weekly basis. Few can. But Wales, the Lions and his club Cardiff Blues could not ask for a better ambassador.

For a player who has been in the spotlight ever since he captained Wales at the 2011 Rugby World Cup he has never shown any glimpse of ego.

Regardless of Warburton’s humility, the decision to give up the Wales captaincy to focus on his form cannot have been easy.

“Being the captain of Wales is an amazing honour, something it is difficult to say no to,” he said last month to the Guardian, re-iterating his love for a role that was thrust upon him seemingly out of the blue an age ago.

Now he is no longer captain, replaced by Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton remains part of the Welsh leadership group at Rob Howley’s request but is a player first, whose selection no longer hinges on the captaincy but as a key cog in the Welsh pack, freed of media duties and allowed to focus on himself.

Were Dan Lydiate available then the debate regarding how to fit Warburton, Lydiate and Tipuric into two positions would no doubt be raging on, as it did so often last year when Warburton’s place was under scrutiny.

The shift he put in last Sunday in Rome reminded those doubters that Warburton is far more than a leadership figure.

He told WalesOnline: “It gave me a bit more of a free role. I was playing at six and I just thought I had to have a big work-rate and offer myself as a ball-carrier a bit more than I perhaps normally would and work as hard as I could at the breakdown.

“Those were the targets for me and to do my little role for the team. I’m pretty pleased.”

Carries well into double figures and a high tackle count his new role seem like a smart one, even if Warburton is not used to wearing a six on his back.

The comparisons here with Chris Robshaw are obvious, with Eddie Jones also alluding to them this week, additionally describing Warburton as “an interesting player and a hard-working grafter”.

Relieved of the England captaincy by Eddie Jones, Robshaw was arguably England’s best player in 2016, converting Jones’ opinion of him from being “a six-and-a-half” to “colossal”.

Robshaw’s work-rate was never questioned when he led England but there is equally no denying he is a far better player both under Jones and now in a blindside role than he was in between 2012 and 2015 leading his country.

During those four years with Robshaw at the helm it was Warburton who came out on top more often than not when Wales faced England; winning two Six Nations titles, peaking with the 30-3 triumph in 2013, and not forgetting the win in the Rugby World Cup group stages that practically knocked England out of their own tournament.

Back to the present and Robshaw has set the precedent for Warburton to follow. Shoulder surgery and Robshaw’s subsequent recovery means the two will not face off in Cardiff.

And coming up against Warburton with the shackles off, England will miss Robshaw and a fully-fit James Haskell too given the Welshman’s outstanding ability to win turnovers, outlined in great detail this week by my colleague Charlie Morgan.

The dovetailing work of Warburton and Tipuric was at the fore in Rome and Wales will need more of the same to halt England’s winning run at 15 games.

Something about Saturday’s stage feels set for a Warburton masterclass. Running out for his 71st Test cap, the 28-year-old is just at the start of the next phase of his career.

by Ben Coles