EXCLUSIVE: Warburton: Granddad's death helped draw line under red card
The best openside flanker in the world dips his head to fit through the wooden door frame of his old clubhouse and introduces himself to the locals as 'Sam'. It is the most unnecessary introduction in the history of introductions.
Sam Warburton is the 23-year-old captain of Wales who has fronted one of the most famous assaults on World Cup glory, established himself as the stand-out candidate to lead the next Lions tour and is consistently hailed by his coach Warren Gatland as the best in the business.
'I was sat next to Warren when he first said that,' he groans. 'It was two days before the South Africa match at the World Cup. People were going on about the Southern Hemisphere sevens and Warren put that statement out there. I was sat there thinking in my head “no pressure then” and I started sweating. He didn't tell me he was going to say it.'
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If Warburton's talent ever met his ego in a dark alley, it would not be a fair fight. Two days later, on the same night certain England players were hitting the bars of Queenstown, Warburton was hitting Springbok after Springbok. He made a quarter of his side's tackles in that match and earned worldwide admiration.
'My parents always say the bigger the game the better I play. Certainly the more I enjoy it and the less nervous I am.
'The least nervous I've been for any match was the semi-final against France. It's quite strange, inversely proportional, but you relish the big battles. There's no point in playing duff teams and duff players. I've such a competitive nature you want to be the best in the world.'
Tipping the balance: Warburton's now infamous tackle on Vincent Clerc which earned him a red card
The semi-final will always be remembered for the tip tackle on Vincent Clerc and the red card that followed. But for Warburton, the story has moved on. While Wales mourned a lost shot at the Web Ellis Cup, he lost his grandfather before Christmas and gained some perspective.
'When I came home, I went to London with my girlfriend Rachel,' he says. 'The first guy we saw at the hotel took our bags upstairs and, as he turned to leave the room, he said: “/02/03/article-2096149-0E49007E00000578-986_468x286.jpg” width=”468″ height=”286″ alt=”Best in the business: Warren Gatland hailed his captain before the World Cup” class=”blkBorder” />
Best in the business: Warren Gatland hailed his captain before the World Cup
'They are my parents' dogs, Gus and Ted (after Tottenham legends Poyet and Sheringham), but I don't want to get my own while they're still alive because it would feel like I'm cheating on them. I can't have them seeing me with another dog.'
He is just as engaging off the topic of rugby. If he isn't drumming topless during a jam session with his mates, he is dreaming about being reincarnated as a turtle. Seriously.
'I haven't drummed for a while, but I need to get back into it,' he says. 'I couldn't have been a rock star though I can play with my top off and get a sweat on. That's as far as it goes. I'll have a jam with my mates. He'll make up a riff and I'll come in or vice versa, only messing around.
'I watch quite a bit of Discovery Channel in my time off too and I liked Blue Planet. Rachel got me the series for Christmas and they were doing a bit on the turtle. After all the pressures of playing rugby, if I could be reincarnated, a nice, placid life as a turtle in the ocean sounds ideal.'
You could say Warburton took to captaincy like a turtle to water. His interpretation of leadership is compelling.
'You get some captains who will talk at every opportunity in a meeting and give you all the cliches all week. But if I was a player I wouldn't remember what somebody said to me on Monday morning after a session. If there's something to be said I'll say it but I won't just talk for the sake of talking. I don't want to try to act like a captain, I want to be myself.
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'The players know my style. It probably took them a while to get used to it, and they probably thought I was a bit quiet but they are used to it now. Being a senior player doesn't mean you're the oldest, it means you're an experienced, consistent performer. We've got lots of them which is what makes my job quite easy.'
A significant factor to Wales' success — besides a bucket of talent, pace and power — has been their unique physical conditioning. They were without question the fittest side at the World Cup.
'We call it “putting it in the bank”', he says. 'When you're in that dark place in a match and you're struggling, you just think back to a tough session in Poland and it helps you get through because you've been to a worse place and survived.
Up for the cup: Warburton with coach Gatland
'Going on the beach at -10 for sprints on the sand with the chill coming off the sea was brutal. I had five layers on, gloves and a beanie hat and when it finished I was still cold.
'But it gives us confidence and I know everyone is expecting great things from us. You walk past the Millennium Stadium and they've got the three fixtures, the last of which is Wales v France which is already sold out because people anticipate it will be a Championship game. That's where the Welsh public are at. But you're going to have highs and lows, you're not going to be at the top of your game for 10 years.'
The Warburton fan club seems to transcend all generations. The interview is interrupted twice, first by a flock of elderly ladies who want photographs, and finally by a class of screaming eight-year-old girls.
They see Warburton walk past the window of their school and start singing to him in perfect unison. It is a song they have been practising for singing class, according to the teacher, who emerges blushing from the classroom.
The song is Cee Lo Green's 'Forget You'. Somehow, I don't think Wales will.
Sam Warburton is supporting NatWest RugbyForce, the community volunteer programme that is improving club facilities. To register your club in Wales visit natwest.com/rugbyforce and to register in England and Scotland visit rbs.com/rugbyforce.