Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: Warburton Lions' best choice as skipper

Sam Warburton. Photo / Getty Images
Sam Warburton. Photo / Getty Images

After several false starts because of injury, Sam Warburton made his Lions debut in Brisbane.

He led that victorious side out against the Reds as he will again tonight against the Waratahs, while the chorus grows about whether he will return to wear the No7 Wales jersey for the opening test in Brisbane.

Loose forward is one area where the Lions have an abundance of choice with Dan Lydiate, Sean O'Brien, Justin Tipuric, Tom Croft, Jamie Heaslip and Toby Faletau in a tremendous selection battle with Warburton.

Finding the right balance of speed, breakdown expertise, lineout acumen, defence and power running among those loose forwards is one of the test riddles for the selectors.

Warburton, Croft and Heaslip begin tonight's game with Lydiate the backup on the bench.

Is that the favoured four for Brisbane or is there still some tinkering to be done?

It's unlikely coach Warren Gatland and his panel want any of their test loose forwards to be put through a physical mangle on Tuesday against the Brumbies, ahead of the opening international.

If Warburton hangs together and gets through a decent workload tonight, he will captain the side in Brisbane.

He may have understudied Ryan Jones and Gethin Jenkins this year in the Six Nations after returning from injury, but Gatland would have had no doubts about his preferred skipper.

In the final shootout with England, even though he was not captain, Warburton had an easy rapport with referee Steve Walsh. Several times, Warburton queried Walsh's rulings and rather than any rebuke, there was a calm conversation between the pair.

In discussion with and about referees, it had become clear to Gatland that they were comfortable explaining decisions to Warburton during matches.

During the Six Nations, the majority of penalties were awarded for scrum or breakdown offences so it was important for a captain to keep tabs on those and fall in quickly with the referee's rulings.

That information and Warburton's career as the most successful captain in the Northern Hemisphere in the last few years meant his appointment to lead the Lions was an easy decision for Gatland and the tour selectors.

Gatland wants someone with that leadership experience who feels unencumbered by the duties.

Something dramatic will need to occur to change that thinking for Brisbane.

If Warburton's work is inadequate tonight or he is injured then others will come into the captaincy debate.

Men such as Brian O'Driscoll or Paul O'Connell have led the Lions on previous tours and could do it again, and if an alternate openside is needed, O'Brien has shown a robust approach and understanding of the breakdown to test the Wallabies.

Getting a sense of who will have a series advantage is difficult. The Lions have shown some strong forward work on tour, impressive Leigh Halfpenny goalkicking and some varied backline cohesion against understrength rivals.

Their great advantage though is they have been playing for the last few weeks while the Wallabies have been at their training camps, no doubt honing their plans and working on their training ground drills.

Freshness against matchplay - who wins? We'll know the first answer in a week.

- NZ Herald

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