Style and substance

PAUL MORGAN, writing in SA Rugby magazine, says Wales openside flank Sam Warburton is the complete package.

‘The best thing since sliced bread’ is a term that has often been used to describe the rise of Sam Warburton, what with his surname also emblazoning a popular brand of loaf in the UK. And over the past year he has certainly been living up to his billing.

Warburton started the 2010-11 season in the northern hemisphere as Martyn Williams’s understudy with the Cardiff Blues and Wales. He ended it as Wales captain. Warburton has been linked with the national captaincy almost as long as he’s been tipped as Williams’s successor in the No 7 jersey, but few would have predicted he’d be leading his country at the age of just 22, against the Barbarians in Cardiff at the start of June. Then again, few have had as big an impact on Welsh rugby over the past 12 months than the Welsh Rugby Writers’ Association Player of the Year. So much so, in fact, that he will be the key man in Warren Gatland’s World Cup squad.

Warburton, you see, has the ideal combination of style and substance for a modern-day openside flanker. He has the requisite skills at the breakdown – at least slowing the ball down if not snaffling it – and is solid in defence too, but he is also a strong ball-carrier, has decent hands and knows how to pick a good line, as he showed when supporting James Hook to score under the posts against Italy during this year’s Six Nations.

To fully appreciate Warburton’s talents, perhaps it’s best to ask those who play alongside him. Williams has been something of a mentor as well as a rival throughout Warburton’s career and he is fulsome in his praise.

‘He’s a great athlete and such a strong, physical bloke,’ says Williams. ‘But it’s the top two inches with Sam too. On and off the field he’s a model professional and he works harder than anybody. He analyses the game really well and always wants to improve. He keeps his feet on the ground and he’s going to be a huge star – a Lion a number of times.

‘Defensively he’s an animal, he can carry and there are no real weaknesses to his game. It’s quite frightening to think he’s just learning the game and how good he is.’

During the Six Nations, Warburton and Dan Lydiate formed a potent partnership as Wales’ two flanks, developing a strong understanding of each other’s game so that they could work in tandem in defence and attack – troubling opponents in both facets. Lydiate, of the Newport Gwent Dragons, is in no doubt about his team-mate’s greatest strength, saying:

‘Sam’s nickname is Count Jackula for his jackling ability [where the tackler gets back to his feet and wins the ball]. He’s good in the contact area. That’s every No 7’s thing – the breakdown. If we come up against him at regional level, he’s a man to target as he slows down a lot of ball and I expect international teams do the same.’

Warburton’s ambition and determination is illustrated when he says: ‘I’ve wanted to play for the Lions since I was 10 and that’s what I intend to do.’ To achieve that goal he recognises the importance of having several strings to his bow and is constantly looking for ways to improve. He is an avid viewer of analysis tapes, both of himself and others in his position, to see what he can learn. As he says: ‘I have a lot of belief in myself, but I’ve still got a lot of work to do. You usually don’t reach your peak until 26.

‘I like to think I’m quite dynamic. I love defending and jackling, but I don’t want to just be good at one thing. There’s more to the game at seven; it requires a lot of things, like being a jackler, a ball-carrier, a support player and so on. I want to develop my game and to cover all the bases.’

It’s this desire to improve that has allowed Warburton to progress from regional replacement to Test regular, though in his mid-teens rugby was not his first sport of choice. He competed in athletics, particularly pentathlons, and also played in the same school football team as Gareth Bale, the Tottenham midfielder, even earning a trial at Cardiff City as a 14-year-old. Now he says: ‘I was way out of my league to be honest. I was nowhere near the standard and it brought me down to earth.’

As his football career hit the buffers, Warburton decided to focus on rugby and immediately reaped the rewards. Whitchurch High School put him forward for a Cardiff Blues U16s training day and he soon signed for the region’s academy. He went on to represent Wales at age-group level, leading his country at the U19 and U20 World Championships in 2007 and 2008 respectively. As for his club career, he signed his first professional contract with the Blues in 2009 – rebuffing offers from several English clubs because, ‘I’m a big Blues supporter and I wanted to have a good crack here before going anywhere else’ – and at the same time won his first cap, against the USA in Chicago.

It was not the most orthodox of Test debuts. He came off the bench after just 20 minutes when Ryan Jones took a blow to the head, then another back-rower, Robin Sowden-Taylor, had to leave the pitch before half-time with a hamstring injury, meaning Neath Swansea Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard had to play out of position at blindside.

‘It was an unusual debut,’ admits Warburton. ‘You expect it to be at the Millennium Stadium, not an eight-hour journey away to America. It was a hell of an experience and something I’ll never forget. I didn’t expect to get on that soon and it was a pressure situation to be in when Robin went off, but it went well and I had a lot of time to express myself.’

He has had a chance to express himself further in the past few months, starting Wales’ last seven matches and trialling his leadership skills for the Barbarians game. Llanelli Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees is sure to captain Wales at this year’s World Cup, but Gatland clearly wants leaders throughout the side and sees Warburton as one of those. It’s a role that doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably with Warburton – he describes himself as  ‘naturally quite quiet’ – and he wasn’t too keen when asked to be skipper at age-group level, but he has embraced the challenge.

‘The first time I was picked as captain was against England for the U19s and I was very close to ringing up the coach and saying, “Hand it to someone else”,’ says Warburton. ‘I was worrying too much about it. I don’t like having responsibility for players and I just didn’t like not being able to relax. The day before a game I just want to sit down and focus on the game, but I’d be going to press conferences and doing off-field stuff. Having said all that, the extra pressure can bring out the best in you.’

The next type of pressure Warburton will experience is that of a World Cup; more specifically a World Cup in the rugby-mad country of New Zealand. He missed out on the chance to go to the Land of the Long White Cloud last year after fracturing his jaw in the June Test against the Springboks and now he can’t wait to experience the culture out there.

‘I was really disappointed in the hospital when I found out I was going to miss the tour. It was all doom and gloom, but then I thought I’d have the chance to go to New Zealand for the World Cup. I’ve always wanted to go there.’

As for the tournament itself, Wales will be looking to make amends for what was a dismal showing at France 2007, where they failed to even make the quarter-finals. That 38-34 defeat by Fiji in their final pool match will sit long in the memory of many a Welshman and a large proportion of the team beaten that day remains in the Wales squad, desperate to give a better account of themselves on the world stage.

A teenage Warburton watched that game on TV; now he will be part of the action – and in a quirk of the draw Wales will play Fiji in their last pool match again, this time in Hamilton rather than Nantes. He knows about the challenges that lie ahead – their pool is surely the most physical in the tournament given that it also includes reigning world champions South Africa, Samoa and Namibia, but, after the team fell short against England and France in the Six Nations, he believes that Wales can deliver.

‘The quarter-finals are our minimum target. We’re probably the second favourites in the group behind South Africa, but if we play to our potential, we can beat them. The squad is maturing and getting better, so we’ve got a good chance of getting to the latter stages.

‘My best memory of the World Cup is of 2003 when Jonny Wilkinson dropped his goal to win it. I never thought I’d be able to take part in a World Cup. If someone had told me that at the time, I wouldn’t have believed them. Now it’s within my grasp I’m so excited.’

Warburton has enjoyed quite a journey over the past year – and it’s not over yet. Next on the agenda is a 19 000km trip to New Zealand, where he will be hoping his career path continues its upward trajectory on the biggest stage of all.

– This article first appeared in the September issue of SA Rugby magazine