Sam Warburton became the youngest Lions captain in nearly 60 years and admitted he would be silly to ignore the experience of his two immediate predecessors Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll during this summer’s tour to Australia.
Warburton, who will be 24 years and 244 days old when the tour kicks off against the Barbarians in Hong Kong a month from today, is the youngest captain since Ireland’s Robin Thompson led the 1955 Lions, completing a remarkable rise to the most coveted playing honour in the four nations.
Just four years ago, as O’Connell was captaining the Lions in South Africa, back rower Warburton was part of a Wales development squad touring North America, making his Test debut against the USA in Chicago in June 2009.
In four short years he has risen to his country’s captaincy, an influential leader in Wales’s back-to-back Six Nations titles and yesterday in London, Lions head coach Warren Gatland, also his national team boss, named him captain of his 37-man squad to take on the Wallabies over three Tests in June and July.
O’Connell and O’Driscoll, who led the 2005 Lions until that controversial spear tackle in the first Test against New Zealand, were both being touted to reprise their roles this time around and although Gatland looked elsewhere he named them among a nine-man contingent of Irish players, Six Nations champions Wales leading the numbers game with 15, runners-up England with 10 and Scotland with three representatives.
When asked if he would lean on the Irish veterans as right-hand men, Warburton said both hugely experienced players had a major role to play over the 10-game tour Down Under.
“They’ll know that,” Warburton said. “As soon as I meet up with them and we get together they’ll be in a core leadership group that will influence the way the tour goes and, believe me, those two have a massive part to play.
“It would be very silly of me to ignore two ex-captains. You have to use them to your advantage and they’ll be hugely influential on this tour.”
Warburton may be only 24, the fifth youngest captain in Lions history and a former classmate of Tottenham star Gareth Bale, but Gatland knows he has a skipper mature beyond his years, describing the Cardiff Blues player as “a young man with an old head”.
Though Warburton may be young, he is no longer the star-struck rookie thrust into the captaincy by Gatland two years ago. Leading experienced, battle-hardened tour veterans like O’Driscoll and O’Connell will not faze him.
“When I was 22, we had guys like Ryan Jones, who had captained Wales something like 20 times, Stephen Jones [and] Shane Williams and I was like ‘hang about, how am I going to captain these guys?’
“I had some reservations about doing it back then, but this time around I’ve learned that rather than be worried about that, those guys are the first guys you go up to when things do get tough and you can lean on them.
“They’ll be pivotal in terms of how we bond, how well we play and how much we enjoy the tour. So those guys have a massive part to play.”
Lions team manager Andy Irvine said Warburton would be “nuts” not to lean on the senior tourists, whom he believed would accept missing out on the captaincy themselves with good grace.
“I think it will be a huge help to him,” Irvine said. “When you look at the personalities of these guys, they’re good guys. They will not be bitter or disappointed that they’re missing out themselves.
“I think they will accept all the reasons why Sam was the right man and I’ve not got the slightest doubt that Paul or Brian will contribute hugely. We’d be nuts not to try and utilise the wealth of their experience and they’re also good guys, because it really is important that you get decent characters that are all in it together.”
Veteran fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will not be among the senior citizens on tour, however, the Englishman telling Gatland in a phone call on Sunday evening that his club commitments with Toulon and his battered body would make him unable to join the tour leaving for Hong Kong on May 27.
“I just said, ‘are you available for the tour?’ Gatland said. “He appreciated the call and he said, ‘to be honest I’m struggling with my body. I’m sort of managing myself week to week’.
“I think physically he would struggle to do a tour but he said he really appreciated the call.”
Gatland said O’Connell and O’Driscoll were considered as captains but his coach-captain relationship with Warburton at Wales made the openside flanker the obvious candidate.
He said: “He’s a quiet man who leads from the front and he’ll do a brilliant job for the Lions in Hong Kong and Australia.”
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