Tuesday 25 October 2016

Kate Rowan: The thin sporting thread that links Spurs sensation Gareth Bale with Wales captain Sam Warburton

Published 25/01/2013 | 10:17

GO BACK the guts of a decade to Whitchurch High School in Cardiff. Their football team is pretty impressive. There is one young lad on the team who is streets ahead of his teammates and opposition. He has such a good left foot that the coach makes him play with the right foot in school games to level the playing field.

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This kid is already involved in the Southampton academy and it is only a matter of time before he gives up his books to become professional. However, he isn’t the only promising player on his school team. A bigger, burlier boy has sparked the interest of hometown club Cardiff City and has had a couple of trials but he is starting to focus on rugby.

Fast forward to today and this pair are two of Wales’ most recognisable sportsmen. The player with the deadly left foot departed school after sitting his GCSEs and went on to play for the Saints before being picked up by Tottenham Hotspur. As a mark of his importance to his side, he was the player Manchester United chose to target in the clubs’ one-all draw last weekend. This is of course Gareth Bale.

What became of the other lad with rugby aspirations? Irish rugby fans will be keeping a keen eye on Welsh captain Sam Warburton leading up to Ireland’s opening Six Nations fixture.

The soccer star became a household name first while Warburton dismissed the chance to play for the Welsh sevens in order to concentrate on academics, harbouring aspirations of studying medicine like Wales and Cardiff Blues colleague Jamie Roberts. After a year in university, the openside flanker opted to dedicate his time to rugby.

In a quirk of fate, the rugby star revealed that in their school days it was he who dreamed of playing at White Hart Lane as he was and still is a Tottenham fan. He argued about football with Bale, who grew up supporting Arsenal.

The Spurs star said: “Given his size now he’d probably make a good centre-half – I’ve played against some of the best defenders in the world but I’m not sure how much I’d fancy facing Sam with his power and strength!”

The two Cardiff men have shone at relatively young ages and have proven to be world class in their respective positions. Yet both have had to deal with highs and lows in their sporting careers.

With Bale as one of the architects of Tottenham’s success over recent seasons, it can be easy to forget that he endured a difficult transition period from Southampton to North London losing the left-back spot. Being pushed to play at left midfield was when the Welshman started to really make his mark.

It seems strange now that less than four years ago he was perceived as a jinx to the success of the side. “The Gareth Bale Curse” as it became known was a spell of 24 games where Bale appeared for Tottenham and the side did not manage a win, finally ending in September 2009.

With the Principality losing their last seven test matches and Cardiff Blues’ poor recent form, there is much speculation as to where in the back row Warburton may start against Ireland. Not that long ago, he was being mentioned in the same breath as Richie McCaw and David Pocock in the pecking order of world class opensides but could be shifted to the blindside to accommodate on form Ospreys flanker Justin Tipuric.

Ireland beware - the 24 year-old has a record of proving doubters wrong. Perhaps Bale’s bouncing back from the various disappointments in the infancy of his Spurs career may have proved to be inspiration for Warburton. He has had to deal with the fall-out and regret following his sending-off for the now infamous tip-tackle on Vincent Clerc in the game that saw the Welsh lose out on a first ever World Cup final spot to France.

However, at then 23, he also demonstrated maturity and sportsmanship in publicly admitting to the illegal tackle and in saying Alain Rolland had made the correct decision in sending him off.

Coach Warren Gatland decided to keep faith in his young captain and the player rewarded this loyalty, helping lead Wales to the Grand Slam last year.

Warburton picked up the title of “Squeaky-clean Sam” in the British tabloid press during the 2012 Six Nations due to his self-imposed alcohol ban, which his Welsh international teammates also decided to adopt.

Dealing with this increased media exposure could also be something else that he may possibly turn to his old school friend for advice.

Both Bale and Warburton are seen as role models in the Valleys and particularly in Whitchurch High. However, us Irish will be hoping that the rugby man will not give a top of the class performance in just over a week’s time.

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