OMENS are supposed to come in threes. That is exactly what happened as I made my way from Heathrow Airport towards Syon Park Hotel, this morning’s venue for the British and Irish Lions squad announcement.
As I barely missed the tube the only other two passengers left on the platform were a pair of Qantas cabin crew, their luggage emblazoned with the unmistakeable kangaroo logo conjured thoughts of just who be handed those precious boarding passes to Hong Kong and on to Australia?
On the train I spotted one fellow traveller perusing an article concerning what many would describe as the gross out Welsh set reality programme “The Valleys”. This obviously brought to mind that the players from the Principality would most likely make up the lions share of the squad. Minus the crude behaviour, obviously. Particularly as the Welsh under the captaincy of Sam Warburton, where players voluntarily en masse agreed not to drink during the 2011 World Cup.
If a portent was needed to confirm Warburton’s status of favourite for the Lions captaincy, another commuter had the morning’s sports pages on show, emblazoned with the newly crowned Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year Tottenham Hotspur’s Welsh wonder Gareth Bale.
Not even a decade ago Bale and Warburton played on the same school soccer team for Whitchurch High School in Cardiff.
These signs on the Tube were mirroring the recent media speculation that was finally confirmed with quite a splash drama at the squad announcement. I have never been at a rugby press event that supplied such anticipation amongst all the media.
At times, it oddly felt like the moments before musical superstar takes to the stage in a concert. There were not quite whoops, screams and wolf-whistling but there were a few “oohs” and “aaahs” from the usually unflappable hacks present when names such Mako Vunipola and even our own Conor Murray were called out.
Then there was a round of applause when the Captain Warburton entered announced by head coach Warren Gatland, with particularly hearty clapping from the Welsh contingent. I wonder if the Cardiff Blues Flanker felt again like “a rock star” as he had described his feeling upon Wales’ hammering of England to claim this year’s Six Nations?
The 24 year-old’s demeanor was in stark contrast today with when most Irish media would have last seen him at the aftermath of Ireland’s win over the Welsh back in the first weekend of the Six Nations.
Back on what was a gloomy day for Welsh rugby, Warburton seemed much older than his years and sat slightly hunched his hands grasping his chin, in a pose reminiscing of Rodin’s sculpture; The Thinker.
Today, however, his youthful enthusiasm shone through along with that intensity that marks him out as a thinker who conveys a deep sense of the responsibility he now shoulders.
Warburton’s honesty in comparing his emotions upon receiving the Lions Captaincy compared with when he first received the Welsh armband perhaps helps to shed light on his character, “I am absolutely thrilled. When I first got the Welsh captaincy I was quite anxious but this time around it was just sheer joy, I was running around punching the air with delight!”
The Welshman also gave a fascinating insight into how he will put his experience at international level to good use, “It is similar thing you get when going from club rugby to international rugby when you have four regions coming together to play as Wales and you all have to work together, it is similar dynamic but on a bigger scale with four nations coming together.”
Irish ears will be keen to hear what the young player makes of having to captain two former Lions captains; Brian O’Driscoll and Paul O’Connell “ A similar situation happened when I was 22, becoming the Wales captain with Ryan Jones who had been captain I had reservations but rather than worrying you lean on those experienced players when it get tough and there is no doubt that they (O’Connell and O’Driscoll) will have a massive influence.”
There was a wonderfully bizarre moment while the new Captain was surrounded by a scrum of camera crews speaking of how keeping the secret of the Lions captaincy was almost as difficult as when he was planning to propose to his now fiancée Rachel, in the back round while he spoke with glee, Sky Sports rugby presenter Alex Payne was filmed making a clip chronicling the highs and lows of his career.
These include his captaincy of Wales during the last World Cup and his dreams shattered with his semi-final sending off against France, then breaking from that disappointment to lead his team to the Grand Slam in 2012. This was followed by the loss of the captaincy during this Six Nations and his subsequent bounce back culminating in the honour of the Lions captaincy. This resilience is something that despite his tender years is sure to be an asset heading to Australia.
Let’s hope the Welshman can marry his skills and passions with those of the leaders from the three other home nations.
- By Kate Rowan