EXCLUSIVE: Warburton ready to reign as Lion King as Wales take on the Barbarians
21:30 GMT, 1 June 2012
Torch carrier: Sam Warburton
When Wales play the Barbarians in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon, Sam Warburton will be 10,400 miles away, squinting at a laptop screen.
It will be 11pm in Brisbane but he and 15 team-mates — who are already in Australia preparing for the first Test in a weeks time— will find a way to watch it.
‘Somebody will find a stream on the internet — we’ll have to,’ said Warburton. ‘In Poland, during a training camp, I remember the boys running around the hotel trying to find a stream for the Haye v Klitschko fight.
‘Loads of them were dodgy and kept cutting out, so hopefully someone can find a decent stream.’
It is unusual for the captain of a side to be in a different hemisphere during a Test match, but it is no surprise that a three-Test series against the Wallabies is the priority for Wales. For all the tub-thumping and Grand Slam glory, Wales have never beaten South Africa or New Zealand on enemy soil and they have only beaten the Aussies once, back in 1969.
The tour also happens to follow the exact route the Lions will take in 12 months — Brisbane, Melbourne and finally Sydney. Although Warren Gatland, the Lions coach-elect, is not officially joining the tour following his freak fall cleaning windows, this is an opportunity for players to show the selectors what they can do on hard ground against the Wallabies one year early.
‘If you say you haven’t thought about it you’re lying,’ said Warburton. ‘Players will play down the whole Lions thing, but it’s 12 months to go and everybody wants to play for the Lions.
‘I’m not going to make any bones about it. What motivates you to play club rugby is international rugby, what motivates you to play international rugby is to play for the Lions.
‘To play an international a year before the Lions tour in Australia and have the chance to put in some big performances, that’s huge.
Main man: Warburton hopes to lead Wales to success this summer
WALES: Liam Williams (Scarlets);
Robinson (Cardiff), Bishop (Ospreys),
Hook (Perpignan), Brew (Dragons); Biggar (Ospreys), Lloyd Williams (Cardiff); Gill (Saracens), Rees (Scarlets, capt), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), AW Jones (Ospreys), Evans (Ospreys), Turnbull (Scarlets), Tipuric (Ospreys), Ryan Jones (Ospreys).
Substitutes: Hibbard (Ospreys), James (Ospreys), Shingler (Scarlets), M Williams (Cardiff), Webb (Ospreys), Warren (Scarlets), Harries (Dragons).
BARBARIANS: Muliaina; Nacewa, Laulala, Tindall, Williams; Donald, Rees; Jones, August, Smit (capt); O’Driscoll, Chisholm; Louw, Gorgodze, Beattie.
Substitutes: De Malmanche, Tialata, Van Zyl, Qera, Lawson, Tagicakibau, Heymans.
Referee: Alain Rolland (Ireland).
TV: LIVE on S4C from 1.25pm and BBC2
Wales from 1.30pm (Kick-off 2pm).
‘I’m sure the boys will be looking forward to stepping up to that challenge, seeing where those big performances can take you.
‘The Lions is the distant target in mind but our priority has got to be the Test series win first.’
To many, Warburton is a natural choice for Lions captain. He is honest and unassuming, a Grand Slam-winning skipper and already has a working relationship in place with the likely bulk of the coaching set-up. He is also passionate and hungry.
‘Back in the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, I was still living with my parents watching on the sofa at home,’ he said. ‘I just remember watching Jamie Roberts and Brian O’Driscoll carve it up.
‘That’s my memory of the tour, O’Driscoll on the gain line throwing a discreet shoulder ball and Jamie just hammering it up.
‘It was a good tour from a Welsh perspective. Adam Jones emerged as a world-class scrummager and I had a keen eye on Leigh Halfpenny at the time because we’d come through the Blues academy. I couldn’t believe he was picked at the end of his first professional season.
‘I remember watching that tour
wishing that I could be on the next one.’ Warburton (right) made his
debut for Wales that summer. It was against the USA on a tour of North
‘Of that squad
there’s only about six or seven players left,’ he said, sounding like he
is surprised himself. ‘Yeah, loads of them have gone. That was only
three years ago, so if you look around now the squad has completely
Blow: Wales coach Warren Gatland suffered an bad injury
‘Australia is the first summer tour for a lot of us. I think that makes it quite exciting.
‘It will be a first experience and people may try to turn that into a negative but the World Cup in New Zealand was a first experience and we did all right there. We can take confidence from that.
‘I’m not trying to big us up too much but I think we could win this series. It feels like a natural stepping stone for us now after the World Cup and then the Grand Slam. Australia are one of the fittest and most skilful sides, especially on their own turf.
‘What makes it extra difficult is that they’ve just come off the back of a Super 15 tournament and they’re halfway through their season. If we think we’re going to run the legs off them like we did against some of the Six Nations teams then it will be a different story.
‘They’ll be able to keep coming so these should be great Test matches. People at home might be happy if we just win a Test but we want to win the series.’
Warburton is determined not to let Gatland’s injury upset Wales’ long-term goal of global domination. But the plan that ends in World Cup glory must begin with a Test series win on foreign soil against one of the southern hemisphere superpowers.
‘We will miss Warren, of course, because he’s such a big influence on the squad, but without him the set-up and structure is all pretty similar.
London calling: Warburton carried the Olympic torch through Cardiff
‘We go through the same routines in training, we approach Test week the same way, the foundations are all still there.
‘I was watching Sky Sports News when Warren’s injury flashed up and the first thing I did was check the date to make sure it wasn’t an April Fool. You didn’t know if it was a joke or not.
‘Then the texts started to go around all the boys and I realised how serious it was.
‘It must have been agony. Fracturing both heels It sounds like a shocking injury, worse than 90 per cent of rugby injuries. Rob Howley has been very influential in my time with Wales anyway. Having Rob as head coach doesn’t feel unusual at all.’
For Warburton personally, the Grand Slam hysteria was marred by shoulder trouble. But after three trips to London, the specialist has given him the green light to play and he says the nerves have been fine during upper-body wrestling and ‘bone-on-bone’ tackling drills.
Anyway, you sense he would be in Australia even with one working shoulder. The Lions tour is 12 months away and Warburton is ready for his audition.
The new official WRU Supporters Club has launched. To become an official supporter visit: www.wru.co.uk/supportersclub and register today.