Warburton's referee rapport tipped scales for Gatland
Welshman's ability to sweet talk officials made Lions captaincy call an easy decision, writes Steve James
It may have been the moment that confirmed Sam Warburton as captain of the Lions. It came in the first half of the match between Wales and England in Cardiff in March. England centre Brad Barritt was tackled by Wales lock Ian Evans, and the first man in was Warburton, as ever trying to steal the ball.
Immediately referee Steve Walsh blew his whistle to penalise Warburton.
Walsh reckoned that Warburton had gone past the ball first and then back on to it, hoping to do so using the momentum of the English players coming into the contact area, something known as "dragging" in the modern game.
Warburton disagreed, and began a dialogue with Walsh about the decision's rights and wrongs. Up in the stands Warren Gatland was impressed, not least because Warburton, having suffered a difficult Six Nations campaign, was not even captain in that game. He was still talking about the incident at the Lions squad announcement in London last Tuesday.
"Walsh allowed Sam Warburton to go to him three times to question that decision, to get some clarification," Gatland said. "Now if you know Steve Walsh, he doesn't allow that from anybody. Sam wasn't captain that day and you've got to be pretty special to be able to do that, because knowing Steve Walsh, he normally gives it the old 'get away'!"
That is confirmed by England's prop Dan Cole, who could extract no answers from Walsh as to the source of the string of penalties awarded at the scrummage.
"It was a big signal to me that either referees had been talking or it was about respect," Gatland said. "There are only two or three players in the world that referees would allow to do that. It's the ability Sam has to communicate with referees and when I saw that against England, it really stuck in my mind that this guy could do a job for us and potentially have a positive influence on the game with his relationship with referees."
It is sound thinking. Refereeing will doubtless play a huge role in the three Test matches in Australia, as it does in most major matches these days, with decisions around the breakdown and scrummage often determining outcomes.
Warburton and Wales, who conceded fewer penalties per game than any other side in the Six Nations, while making their opponents give away more, have become masters of securing those decisions.
"A lot of it is a matter of interpretation," Gatland said. "As coaches all we're looking for is consistency. One of the best examples of that is Richie McCaw, who made a comment to one of the top referees that he goes in and assesses the first 10 minutes of a match and how they are going to referee the game, and then he will play accordingly.
"It is a little bit of an indictment on the game at the moment that we don't have it across the board in terms of interpretations."
The three officials for the Test matches will be New Zealand's Chris Pollock, South Africa's Craig Joubert and France's Romain Poite. "I'm not concerned about the referees we've got," Gatland said. "I think the appointments are good. I think they are fair."
It appears that Joubert also influenced Gatland's choice of Warburton as Lions captain.
"I think Craig has got a really good relationship with Sam Warburton," he said. "Having spoken to Craig I know that he regards Sam as one of the best sevens in the world. He regards him on a par with McCaw and [David] Pocock in terms of the way he is at the breakdown, his physicality and the way he carries.
"So when a referee makes these comments to you in terms of enjoying his leadership and saying that he's got a rapport with him, it makes it a kind of easy decision for me to make in terms of appointing him as captain."
Gatland could pick Warburton at openside or at the blindside flanker position he filled so well against England.
"It is one of the reasons I selected Sam as captain," the Lions head coach said. "If I was picking a Test side tomorrow, would he be in the starting XV? I think he would be, whether it was at six or seven.
"I think a lot has been made of this year, but one of the things I admire about Sam is that it is not about him, it is about putting the team first. But he is under no illusions – his performances have to be good enough."
You suspect they will be.