Thursday 22 February 2018

'There are times, even in a team sport, when you must be selfish'

Sam Warburton has lost the Welsh captaincy but remains optimistic about his Lions hopes

Sam Warburton
Sam Warburton

Paul Rees

Sam Warburton was looking at his phone which kept alerting him to text messages. It was six days before the Wales squad for the Six Nations was due to be announced and there was media speculation that day that he had agreed to stand down as captain after nearly six years in the position.

It seemed to undermine a player without an ego who had been central to Wales's success this decade, and he was duly relieved of the position, but Warburton has always been one to treat both of Kipling's twin impostors with equanimity. The game to the 28-year-old, who led the 2013 Lions, has always been about the uniform, not the stripes.

"My father was among those who texted me," he said. "I replied that I bet there was not one quote in the report and there wasn't. It is all speculation and I have no idea what is going on. Being the captain of Wales is an amazing honour, something it is difficult to say no to. My priority has always been to play well and if you get something on top of that, whether with Cardiff Blues or Wales, it is a nice bonus. My favourite moment with the Lions in 2013 was getting my No 7 shirt because it filled a goal I set myself as a young boy, getting into the squad and then the Test team. I never had a dream to be captain, just to be a Lion."

The Wales interim head coach, Robert Howley, said that the captaincy had been taken off Warburton to allow him to concentrate on himself and be more selfish at a time when there was a social media clamour for Justin Tipuric to become the first choice at openside flanker. The Osprey was seen as the form player with Warburton almost written off despite remaining one of the best turnover specialists in the game. There was something very Welsh about it, west against east, all perception and emotion.

"You are never on top form the whole time in your career," said Warburton. "My priority as captain has been that performance has to come first; it is why you get picked. There have been a number of occasions since 2011 when I thought I needed to focus on playing well: a lot of external stuff comes with the captaincy and sometimes if you are taken away from that it is a nice luxury when you have led the side for a while: you need to step back and look at yourself. There are times, even in a team sport, when you need to be selfish.

"I hope social media does not have an effect on players, but I suspect it does on some. I realised that remarks had no substance when I was watching a game of football with some mates and one of them said of a top Premiership footballer that he was rubbish. It was a passing comment from someone who, no offence, had no footballing ability or coaching credibility. It was an opinion he was entitled to and some express them on social media, but they have no substance: the player was clearly not rubbish. My advice to a young player would be to stay away from social media because it does not mean anything. Justin and I understand that: I respect him a lot and he has no interest in social media. Ospreys fans will back him and Blues supporters will back me. It is banter, and when I watch football at home I shout at the television. As rugby players, we have a fantastic lifestyle and travel the world playing the sport we love. If you get a bit of criticism, so be it; you have to take the rough with the smooth."

An irony after the decision to take the captaincy off Warburton is that he will go into the Six Nations on a run of matches with the Blues rather than making a return from injury. He made his seventh appearance in a row for the Blues last weekend against Bristol and there is no issue about his match fitness. "Normally the first question I have from the media before a series is whether I have had enough game-time," he said. "I have had a bit of banter from the boys about it and I am feeling good.

"I used to get down about injuries, but accept now that they are part and parcel of being a No 7. It is almost impossible now to spend 10-12 years as a professional and not have at least one operation. I could sit here and say I am going to play until I am 35 or 36, but I do not really want to do that because I want to have a pair of knees and shoulders to be able to play with my daughter and maybe other kids. You do think about the long-term effects, especially at the level the game has been at recently. It is extremely tough on your body and mine is perhaps not as durable as other players'.

"Rugby is a lot safer than it used to be in the sense that when you watch old games, as I did the other day with the Lions in South Africa, you see the rucking they were getting away with in the 1980s; now that is a straight red and a long ban.

"The gouging and stamping are completely out of the game and I do not have to worry if I am on the wrong side that I will have the skin torn off my back by a pair of studs. It is not why I lie on the other side, mind, but 99.9pc of the stuff that happens is accidental; players do not go out to hurt someone. You would never tackle someone high deliberately because you know the consequences are potentially catastrophic. I was only once put off my game when I injured both ankles, but it was the only time I thought about injuries."

Tipuric's form means that Warburton is being touted as a potential blindside, a position he played last autumn against Argentina and in the 2013 Six Nations decider against England in Cardiff, but it is not where he sees himself spending the second half of his career even though England's Chris Robshaw made the switch seamlessly.

"I do not think I am enough of a carrier to be an out-and-out 6," he said. "At international level, the top-class ones weigh 110kg or more and they are tall guys who are used in the lineout. I do not match up physically to the best ones I have played against and am more suited to 7. If Wales asked me to play 6 for the next two years, I would say yes but I never want to close the door on 7, which will always be my number one position. Chris has done exceptionally well at 6, but I thought he was a consistently good openside who received unfair criticism. He has a massive work-rate every game and it takes a lot of mental and physical strength to back up performances at the highest level. He deserves credit."

Robshaw will miss the Six Nations because of injury, but Warburton is relishing competing for a place in Wales's back-row. "England will start as favourites, and deservedly so, while Ireland had a fantastic 2016," he said.

"The bookmakers see them as one and two, but you need to see how things unravel. We were developing our game in the autumn and had three wins out of four. That is not a lot of time to change things and the public have to be patient. I like the expectation they put on us, far better than constantly being the underdog. We always go into a Six Nations campaign with the aim of winning it, which makes for a quick goal-setting meeting. Players are as ambitious as fans and the fixture list is the same as when we last won the Championship in 2013, with England and Ireland at home. Many of the toughest games of my career have been against England and Ireland and the advantage of playing at home is the lift the crowd can give you: I remember against Ireland two years ago when after a series of defensive sets they spilled the ball and the reaction was as loud as if a try had been scored."

Wales dominated the Lions squad four years ago when Warburton was captain, a secret he had to keep for two weeks before the official announcement was made. "England and Ireland start the year with an advantage because of their form, but there will be someone starting the Test series no one is expecting now," he said. "Someone will have a superb Six Nations and change opinions: it is a great shop window. I just look at my own position and there are so many contenders; Seán O'Brien, Justin, John Barclay, one of the best I have played against, and Robshaw and James Haskell. I reckon there are 12 in all. I have not spoken to Warren (Gatland) since he was appointed head coach but he will treat everyone the same.

"The best result in the last 12 months was Ireland's victory over New Zealand in Chicago. It ignited excitement in fans who had been pessimistic about the Lions tour: players will always believe, that is not something we are told to say. The first Test will be huge."

Warburton sees himself playing until at least the next World Cup in Japan in 2019. "My dual contract finishes at the end of that season when I will be 31," he said. "I will see how my body is and if it is holding up I will beg the Blues for another year. I have no idea what I will do after rugby, although I would like to take some time out and be with the family; it would be nice to be a house-husband for a year or so. I would like to get a season-ticket at White Hart Lane: there was a time when I was looking at a flat in Tottenham to camp there before matches with my father and brother. It is a dream, but I would have to put it past my wife first.

"I do not think I will write my autobiography because it would be pretty boring: I relax by walking my dog (named after the former Spurs centre-half Ledley King) and seeing the family; it is what I do on my days off. I go there and the last thing I talk about is rugby."

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