Tuesday 20 March 2018

Warburton on Lions mission

Michael Aylwin

While all others were biting their nails in another tight affair and rolling eyes at yet another penalty, one man remained furiously focused at the heart of it all. Sam Warburton – lionised for so long as the likeliest captain of you-know-which touring party, then chastened by a slump in form and an exclusion from the team he already captained – was on a mission at a windy, bitter Murrayfield.

There he was, deep into the 79th minute of the game, burrowing ruthlessly at the torso of Kelly Brown, his opposite number and a rival No 7 who it seemed had stolen a march on him in the Lions pecking order.

Scotland were only chasing the game then, long past the point of being able to overturn the 10-point deficit they faced for those last frantic minutes, when they finally decided to play a bit. It didn't really matter – Wales had won the game – but it mattered to Warburton. The penalty was his, and Brown and his mates were to be denied even the consolation of a try on home territory.

Warburton was rightly named man of the match. If he does make it on to the plane for Australia this summer, he will be stretched further than he was by Scotland, or indeed by the tempo of his own team. Even by the recent standards of a championship that has lost its way after the pyrotechnics of the opening round, this was a dispiriting match.

As much as fans this end of the world are arguing about who should go to Australia, one man most will hope not to see Down Under this summer is Craig Joubert. Ugly penalty-fests seem to follow him round.

Thirty-nine points in this 46-point match resulted from penalties – a record in this competition. It was never shaping up to be a classic, but few referees seem so aware of the assessors' scrutiny as Joubert. Every little offence he could ping he eagerly pinged.

Until the last quarter, when Wales' physicality grew too much, Scotland looked intent on playing the same game as they had in round three against Ireland, which is to say, let the opposition play and profit from what scraps you can – and they wrung every last point that they could out of the first half. They would have led, too, at the break had some mindless indiscipline from Jim Hamilton not allowed Halfpenny to kick a penalty from in front of the posts for a 12-10 lead.

Thereafter it became Warburton's game. Whether he has time to claim the captaincy of that other team in red – and, before that, a guaranteed starting spot – remains to be seen. But, as if there were any doubt about it, he is clearly of a mind to.


Irish Independent

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