Warburton still favourite to skipper Lions despite Welsh axe
Sam Warburton's plunge from Wales captain to Red Dragon bench-bunny set many tongues wagging in the Principality yesterday, but reports of his demise as an international force are seriously premature.
The Cardiff Blues flanker, demoted after his side's abject display against Argentina last weekend, can expect to return to the starting line-up for the forthcoming meetings with the All Blacks and the Wallabies, and he remains a warm favourite to lead the Lions in Australia next June.
Yet this is not to say the future is all plain sailing. Justin Tipuric, the Ospreys breakaway selected to face the dangerous Samoans at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow night, is a serious player: indeed, some good judges consider him the form No 7 in Wales, Warburton or no Warburton.
If the understudy performs to his level and Wales redeem themselves by winning well against the strongest of the South Seas teams, the Grand Slam champions' approach to the rest of the autumn will be fascinating.
Tipuric has been playing the house down all season and was never likely to find himself kicking his heels for the whole of this international programme.
Given the short gap between the Argentina and Samoa fixtures, this game had his name written all over it – especially as the extreme physical nature of the islanders' rugby puts injury-prone flankers like Warburton at significant risk.
In addition, Wales need to blood a second No 7, having gone years without a realistic alternative to Warburton's revered predecessor at both club and Test levels, Martyn Williams.
"With the six-day turnaround, it's important to freshen things up and also make use of the competition for places we have," said Rob Howley, the assistant coach charged with running the show while Warren Gatland is absent on Lions business.
Blindside flanker Ryan Jones takes over the armband.
Lions scrum-half Mike Phillips returns to the starting combination for Tavis Knoyle; Ospreys out-half Dan Biggar replaces Rhys Priestland at No 10. Richard Hibbard, Bradley Davies and Ashley Beck also come in.
(© Independent News Service)