Rugby: Elated Warburton picked to lead campaign Downunder

By Mick Cleary

Well-respected captain had to keep selection secret for over a week.

Gatland described Warburton as "a young man with an old head". Photo / Getty Images
Gatland described Warburton as "a young man with an old head". Photo / Getty Images

The call to Sam Warburton was made 10 days ago. He was in his mother's kitchen. He saw Lions coach Warren Gatland's name flash up but he did not get to the phone in time.

Warburton called back, was told that he was to be Lions rugby captain on the tour to Australia, punched the air with delight, told his fiancee and almost caused his mother a heart attack when he held up a message to her to tell her the news. After that, Warburton had to lie until the appointment was confirmed yesterday.

A week later in the Farrell household, Andy was careful not to speak to his son, Owen, on his return from Saracens' Heineken Cup semifinal defeat to Toulon. A chance for glory had gone. Had Owen Farrell's Lions prospects also taken a hit? He had not played well.

"I left him alone because he was hacked off and I was out the door sharpish on Monday morning because he was like a bear with a sore head," said Andy Farrell, who was heading to the Lions selection meeting.

"No, I didn't tell him anything. It was important that he found out like everyone else."

If you want an indication of what the announcement of a Lions party means to players, then the snapshot of two different homes tells a tale, speaking of elation and doubt, of relief as well as of anxiety.

Across the four territories yesterday there will have been those emotions and more. Dejection for England captain Chris Robshaw and for Scotland skipper Kelly Brown, too. Likewise Ireland hooker Rory Best, shunted out by not one but two England hookers, Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley.

Irish wing Simon Zebo came close, Scotland halfback Greig Laidlaw also, as did Billy Twelvetrees. And then there was the Jonny saga. On the upside was the joy to be had in the homes of Matt Stevens and Mako Vunipola, consolation of sorts as they dealt with their pain from that loss to Toulon. Remember, too, that Stevens has retired from international duty and had to redeem his reputation and career after serving a two-year ban for cocaine use. That is some comeback.

There had been question marks over Warburton. He had passed on the Wales captaincy when it was offered back to him for the final game of the championship against England. "I had to make sure that I put in a performance for the team," said the 24-year-old. "It wasn't about wanting to be there to lift a trophy as captain. That doesn't interest me. The one reservation I have about captaincy is making sure it doesn't make you complacent."

Those who know him well have no doubt that he will lead the Lions with the same self-effacing dignity that he has done with Wales, first to a World Cup semifinal and then a Grand Slam.

"He is a young man with an old head," said Gatland, the coach who elevated him to the Wales post at the age of 22.

Kicking coach Neil Jenkins recalls the impact Martin Johnson made on the Lions tour in 1997. "Sam reminds me of Johnno," he said. "He didn't say much, either."

Lions manager Andy Irvine, a veteran of many tours, endorsed those views. "He is very well liked, will be respected by all four countries and he is a winner," he said.

Gatland acknowledged that Wales' 30-3 humbling of England to take the championship on the final day had a significant bearing on selection. "Some matches can serve as tipping points and perhaps the coin flipped from one player to another," said Gatland who described that game as "the most intense I've seen in the northern hemisphere".

Even so there are 10 Englishmen on board to 15 Welsh, with Ireland supplying nine and Scotland bringing up the rear with just three.

The surprise selections of Stevens and Vunipola are bracketed under the heading of "points of difference", according to forwards coach Graham Rowntree. In essence, they are dynamic with ball in hand. Given that the Wallabies are not hard-core scrummagers, the Lions can afford to add to their front-row armoury.

There are some raised eyebrows about the backs and certainly the decision to only have two front-line five-eighths.

Gatland warned he will be on guard for any dirty tricks that Australia might come up with. "They will be desperate to win and we have got to be prepared for anything," he said.

The narrative of the 2013 Lions has begun.

Game schedule

• June 1 v Barbarians, Hong Kong
• June 5 v Force, Perth
• June 8v Reds, Brisbane
• June 11 v Combined New South Wales-Queensland Country, Newcastle
• June 15 v Waratahs, Sydney
• June 22 v Australia, first test, Brisbane
• June 25 v Rebels, Melbourne
• June 29 v Australia, second test, Melbourne
• July 06 v Australia, third test, Sydney

- Daily Telegraph UK

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