Wednesday 13 December 2017

Warburton opts to relinquish armband in bid to keep place

Wales' Sam Warburton Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Wales' Sam Warburton Picture: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Duncan Bech

Sam Warburton's decision to step down as Wales captain, which will be confirmed in the coming days, has been triggered by years of dismay at the distractions off the pitch that the role brings, a spate of injuries over the last four years and the determination to avoid special treatment when it comes to team selection.

It emerged yesterday that Warburton will step down as Wales skipper ahead of the Six Nations, which begins in little over three weeks, with reports that he will be replaced by Ospreys lock Alun Wyn Jones.

With Warburton no longer first choice in the back-row, it appears that he is now determined to work on his form to justify his place in the national side.

But it's understood that the 28-year-old has been considering the decision for a number of years, with certain responsibilities that comes with the captaincy wearing thin along with his body thanks to the rigours of the modern game.

Warburton has been one of the standout captains in international rugby since he took over the role in 2011, succeeding Matthew Rees, but the burden of fulfilling numerous sponsor and media responsibilities has prevented him from committing his full attentions to his on-pitch performances.

The Cardiff-born back-row has also been blighted with injuries in recent years, including the hamstring injury that struck him down for the final Lions Test against Australia four years ago that resulted in Jones captaining the side in his stead.

In 2016 alone, Warburton suffered separate injuries to his AC shoulder joint and cheekbone, as well as being concussed during the Six Nations - after a stray boot from team-mate Jones struck him during the narrow defeat by England - and he has had to cope with seven different injuries since sitting out the third Lions Test Down Under in 2013.

Warburton's decision has also been influenced by the emergence of Justin Tipuric as one of the leading openside flankers in world rugby, which raises the question over the outgoing skipper's place in the back-row.

Head coach Warren Gatland, who will lead the Lions to New Zealand this summer for the second consecutive tour, resorted to moving Warburton to the blindside to accommodate the pair of them, but that meant dropping defensive warhorse Dan Lydiate.

Warburton is known to be aware that the captaincy has, at times, guaranteed his place in Gatland's side even if his form suggests otherwise, and he now wants to focus on recapturing his best ahead of the Six Nations and the Lions tour this summer to justify his selection.

Warburton spoke at length earlier this season to admit he doesn't expect to be retained as Gatland's captain for the Lions tour, and it instead appears that Jones is in a two-horse race with Ireland skipper Rory Best to lead to team on their quest to win just a second tour in New Zealand in their history, after Dylan Hartley significantly dented his chances by picking up a six-week ban for a swinging arm on Leinster's Sean O'Brien during a recent European Champions Cup match.

"The captaincy is probably more likely not to happen than it is to happen," Warburton said of the Lions trip.

"There's so much more competition now in the British Isles than there was. It doesn't matter what you've done in the past - I've got to earn it all over again."

Setback

Meanwhile, there appears no let-up to England's woes with the defending champions now set to open their title defence without Joe Marler, while they have also learnt that flanker James Haskell has suffered another setback in his return from a lengthy lay-off.

Marler has been ruled out of the opening two fixtures against France and Wales due to a fractured leg, while the concussed Haskell is to miss Wasps' Champions Cup clash with Toulouse on Sunday.

Offering some comfort, however, is the news that outstanding back-row prospect Sam Underhill is to leave the Ospreys for Bath next season, making him eligible for England selection.

It is the news that Marler's injury is worse than initially feared that will cause the greatest angst as Eddie Jones has now lost two high-quality looseheads.

Mako Vunipola is not expected to recover from his knee problem until the end of February at the earliest - a more definitive date for his comeback is due next week - so Marler had been earmarked to start against France on February 4.

But England must now tackle the first two Championship assignments with Matt Mullan in the No 1 jersey while the uncapped Nathan Catt offers cover from the bench.

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