On previous Lions tours, a Test starting berth would have been seen as an automatic right for the captain, regardless of whether he was the best available player in his position. Yet the goalposts have changed and Warburton is happy not to rely on his status when it comes to selection.
The 28-year-old Welsh back rower felt tightness in his ankle 15 minutes into the opening game of the tour against the Provincial Barbarians, his comeback from a knee injury suffered on April 7 for Cardiff Blues against Ulster. He has not been seen in action since.
By contrast, Sean O’Brien put in an excellent performance at openside flanker in the 12-3 win over the Crusaders on Saturday and his return to action and great form has only served to crank up the pressure on Warburton with the opening Test match against New Zealand less than two weeks away in Auckland.
Warburton gets the chance to reassert his authority ahead of the June 24 Test opener when he lines out for the Lions in tomorrow morning’s next tour game against the Highlanders in Dunedin yet he admits he needs more minutes under his belt.
“I definitely need more games and I knew that coming into the tour,” Warburton said last night as the Lions rolled into Dunedin after their 12-3 win over the Crusaders the previous night.
“I’ve learned from experience that it takes me at least two games and then the third game I’ll probably be playing some good rugby but Gats knew that and I’ve received this role as tour captain and I know there’s every chance that I might not even get involved in that first Test. There’s three Tests to get selected for so it’s not the be all and end all with the first one.
“I’ll be honest with Gats and Gats will be honest with me if I play Tuesday and I still feel I’m a bit undercut, then I might not be ready for that first Test. Maybe that would be the situation, of maybe I could have a blinder on Tuesday and feel absolutely fine. I’ll tell him if I don’t feel ready.”
Warburton will form a back row with Ireland’s CJ Stander at No.8 and James Haskell at blindside flanker as the Englishman faces the club he played for during the 2012 season. Another rival for the seven jersey, Justin Tipuric, is the replacement back row but the captain is ready to make his mark on the game and remind his Wales head coach Gatland exactly what he brings to the party.
Gatland has also named Jared Payne at full-back having started the Ulster back at outside centre in Wednesday’s defeat to the Blues, a game which saw the Ireland international limp out with a tight calf having started in partnership with Robbie Henshaw at inside centre.
Henshaw returns to the No.12 jersey in Dunedin and will partner Jonathon Joseph in midfield. Irishmen Rory Best at hooker and Iain Henderson at lock also feature and Gatland is looking for all his players to follow on from the victory over the Crusaders and stake their own claims to the Test jersey.
“I think a lot of people put their hands up,” Gatland said after Saturday’s win. “There’s no doubt about that. That’s the challenge and the guys who are playing on Tuesday are aware of that.”
R Buckman; W Naholo, M Fekitoa, T Walden, T Li; L Sopoaga, K Hammington; D Leinert-Brown, L Coltman, S Tokolahi; A Ainley, J Hemopo; G Evans, D Hunt, L Whitelock – captain.
G Pleasants-Tate, A Seiuli, S Halanukonuka, J Dickson, J Lentjes, J Renton, M Banks, P Osborne.
J Payne (Ulster, Ireland); J Nowell (Exeter Chiefs, England), J Joseph (Bath Rugby, England), R Henshaw (Leinster, Ireland), T Seymour (Glasgow Warriors, Scotland); D Biggar (Ospreys, Wales), R Webb (Ospreys, Wales); J Marler (Harlequins, England), R Best (Ulster, Ireland), K Sinckler (Harlequins, England); C Lawes (Northampton Saints, England), I Henderson (Ulster, Ireland); J Haskell (Wasps, England), S Warburton (Cardiff Blues, Wales) - captain, CJ Stander (Munster, Ireland).
K Owens (Scarlets, Wales), J McGrath (Leinster, Ireland), D Cole (Leicester Tigers, England), AW Jones (Ospreys, Wales), J Tipuric (Ospreys, Wales), G Laidlaw (Gloucester Rugby, Scotland), O Farrell (Saracens, England), E Daly (Wasps, England).