Sam Warburton achieved a career highlight just getting on the Lions’ bench for last week’s first Test against New Zealand.
Tomorrow he will be facing the biggest challenge of his career.
Peter O’Mahony’s ousting from the Lions squad a week after captaining the Test side at Eden Park may have grabbed the attention of Munster and Ireland supporters when head coach Warren Gatland yesterday revealed his matchday 23 to save the series at Westpac Stadium this weekend but for blindside flanker Warburton it is a return to the position he was selected for back in April.
As the Test-series winning skipper against Australia in 2013, the Welshman carved his name among the greats of Northern Hemisphere rugby but leading the Lions in New Zealand against an All Blacks side that has already taken a 1-0 lead in the three-game showdown has given the 28-year-old a rare shot at history.
Only Willie John McBride has returned home from a successful series against the Kiwis and Warburton understands the size of the task. As one-off games go, tomorrow’s second Test would be at the top of the list of importance.
“It’d be number one. It’s definitely the biggest challenge of my career so far,” Warburton said. “It’s the one team I haven’t beaten in world rugby as well so it’s something I’m desperate to achieve.
“I have managed to beat every other nation in the world but I haven’t beaten New Zealand. For that fact, put together with being away from home, starting in a Test match, it’s going to be the biggest honour in my career leading the boys on Saturday so I can’t wait for that.
“We know it’s all or nothing now. We have one chance. It’s like knockout rugby and hopefully that brings the best out of the guys. It’s similar to the Six Nations and a lot of must-win games.”
That he has taken the place of last week’s Test captain is not lost on Warburton but he counters that with the fact he was overlooked for O’Mahony seven days earlier, having to settle for a place on the bench for the first Test.
“Pete was one of the first guys I wanted to go and congratulate when they picked that first Test team. I think he has done a brilliant job over the past three Saturdays as captain and I think everyone in the squad would agree.
“Today he was one of the first players to come up to me as well. All the players in this tour — it’s not about the captaincy — it is very much team first. Pick the squad then the captain.
“All the players appreciate that and we want to be part of a winning Test series. When I look back at 2013 I don’t look at players not involved in that last Test as non-series winners. You all are. As long as you contribute that is the most important thing.”
Warburton, who lost the Wales captaincy to Alun Wyn Jones at the start of the Six Nations, insisted he was perfectly satisfied with bench duty at Eden Park given his truncated build-up to the New Zealand tour as he battled back with a knee injury suffered against Ulster at the beginning of April. The tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians was his first game back and he suffered an ankle strain that further limited his game time.
“To be perfectly honest, going into the tour when I had my knee injury, it was eight weeks out of action and I remember thinking put a positive spin on it, ‘it’ll be a mini-pre-season and I’ll be fresh’, but really it wasn’t great timing, it was poor timing for me.
“So to get on the bench for the first Test, I was thinking about this, that for me individually it was the third biggest highlight of my career, I started the first two Tests in 2013 and then being on the bench for a Test match, and I’ve always said when I go on the Lions tour that I just want to be involved in the Test matches, that’s what it’s all about really.
“So to be on the bench, I was absolutely delighted and it was going to be the third biggest individual achievement of my career and personally I was over the moon.
“When I said before that I was approaching it as tour captain rather than Test captain, I spoke to Warren about it and I remember chatting a couple of weeks before, just after the Highlanders, and I said: ‘I’ll be honest, I don’t feel I’m at that level that I was in the Six Nations since I’ve come back from my injury’.
“But now I do feel ready, I’ve had a few hit-outs now and I do feel ready to get back to that level that I was in the Six Nations.”
Warburton attributes his lack of success against the All Blacks with Wales in part to his team’s mental weaknesses. He recalled a 2014 Cardiff Test against them when the Welsh were holding their own against Richie McCaw’s team only to concede a lucky try and mentally dissolve.
“From that point then, we cascaded, went downhill and we went down pretty badly.
“At that point, for over an hour we were doing pretty well but what’s really good about this group of (Lions) players, the guys around me are guys who have the mentality which I want from them, they don’t care who they’re playing against. For me it isn’t the colour of a jersey, they’re all human beings who we’re playing and anybody can get put under pressure, anybody. It’s about making sure we can do that on Saturday.
“Looking back to last Saturday they definitely deserved to win that. There were two chances they took extremely well and justified why they’re the best team in the world but I definitely believe, with the guys that we’ve got and the way that they’ve been speaking this past week, that everybody’s got the perfect attitude to win this game on Saturday.
“I think it’s very difficult to know where 15 players are at mentally. I always pride myself that I’ll never quit, ever. I think in a team of 15 players, you only need two or three guys to think that, to drop their head and that could be the game gone. You need 15 guys who stay on it for the whole 80 minutes and those guys who come off the bench, exactly the same.
“I think you get that in a Lions team. It’s very easy when you concede points and you’re under the posts, no heads ever drop down because everyone’s so competitive and they’re all leaders in their own way that you don’t get that in Lions teams really. You might have a couple of guys at international level who drop their heads but you definitely don’t get that on the Lions.”
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