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Ego-free Warburton, the Lions captain who might not play

Reuters logo Reuters 29/05/2017 By Mitch Phillips
British & Irish Lions Sam Warburton poses for a photo © REUTERS British & Irish Lions Sam Warburton poses for a photo

It has long been a pillar of the British and Irish Lions that the captain is a nailed-on starter, but Warren Gatland picked Sam Warburton for a second stint in the job for precisely the opposite reason.

The Lions require every player to check in their ego when they collect their kit and in Warburton, the second man after Martin Johnson to lead the team on successive tours, they have the epitome of such selflessness.

Flanker Warburton faces a real battle for a test slot and Gatland recognises that if there is one player could be named captain, not be picked, and still give his absolute all the cause, then it is the Welshman.

"One of the things I admire about Sam is that it's not about Sam Warburton, it's about the team first," Gatland said when announcing his appointment last month.

"He would be the first one to understand that if someone is better than him in the number seven position, whether it's Sean O'Brien or Justin Tipuric or whoever else, and we picked him over Sam, then Sam would understand that."

Gatland knows Warburton intimately of course, not only through their shared Lions experience in Australia four years ago but through their years together as coach and captain of Wales.

This year though, both have vacated those positions. Gatland took a sabbatical to concentrate on the Lions whereas Warburton stood down from the captaincy after six years to concentrate on his own form.

It proved an inspired decision as he seemed to rediscover the trademark energy that had slipped out of his game during his injury-ravaged previous season.

Typically of Warburton, he was happy to pack down on the blindside for Wales in this year's Six Nations, with Tiupric selected ahead of him at openside, and was his usual, ultra-reliable self.

So, in the absence of another stand-out candidate, Warburton's selection as Lions skipper was warmly received, with plaudits raining down on a man who, just like Johnson, leads not with big speeches, but by example.

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

It is often forgotten that he was only 22 when selected as Wales captain and 24 when he led the Lions.

He has enjoyed some great times with both, but the two pinnacles of his international career to date both come with asterisks that leave him with unfinished business.

The first was the World Cup semi-final of 2011 in New Zealand when he was sent off after 20 minutes for a tip-tackle and had to watch as Wales fell to an agonising 9-8 loss to France.

Then on the Lions tour, having played superbly in the first two matches, he missed the decider with a hamstring injury and was again on the sidelines as compatriot Alun Wyn Jones led the side to victory.

Now, he has the chance to do what only one man has ever done before - lead the Lions to a series victory in New Zealand.

"I genuinely didn't think I'd be a front runner for the captaincy again because I thought it was going to be one of the captains from the home nations," he said.

"I'm a lot more relaxed this time round. I found 2013 really tough, being only 24. Now I feel like although I am still quite a young player, I've got a lot of caps and am one of the experienced guys.

"In 2013 it was amazing, all fresh and new, but this is going to be the toughest thing I've done - it's the ultimate challenge in rugby."

(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)

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