The Scottish Mail on Sunday
Warburton poised for first Test heartache
Skipper may have to pull out of opening showdown
SAM WARBURTON could be about to face one of the toughest decisions of his 28-year-old life.
With injury restricting the British & Irish Lions captain to just 66 minutes of rugby so far on tour, Warburton faces a race against time to be fit for the first Test and may have to tell coach Warren Gatland he should not be considered for selection.
The management remain optimistic that the Welshman will be fit to face the Highlanders on Tuesday after he suffered an ankle injury in the opening win against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians — his first game since damaging knee ligaments while playing for Cardiff Blues against Ulster on April 7.
But as optimistic as they may be, 66 minutes of rugby in more than two months is nowhere near enough to be fit to face the world champions in their own backyard.
Warburton must play at least 50 minutes on Tuesday, and again against the New Zealand Maori next Saturday, to have a chance of being able to justify his place in the starting line up for the first Test, with Sean O’Brien and CJ Stander both pushing hard for a place on the flank alongside Taulupe Faletau at No 8.
If he doesn’t it is hard to see how he can justify a starting place at Eden Park on June 24.
‘Players know those risks when they go into Lions tours,’ Warburton told The Mail on Sunday last month before the squad departed. ‘I know that myself there’s every chance that I won’t start that first Test.
‘I’d be disappointed if I knew I was not playing well enough and I’m in that starting team. I know as a player, and Warren knows this, I’d be ready to take that difficult situation away from him by saying, “I know I’m not playing well enough to start this Test”. If that’s how I feel then that’s what I’ll say.’
Two months after being installed as captain for the second successive tour, following in the footsteps of legendary Lions leaders Willie John McBride and Martin Johnson, Warburton was apparently assured of his spot against the All Blacks having enjoyed an excellent international season after standing down as Wales’ most capped skipper.
But injuries have severely hampered his pre-Test preparation and O’Brien’s outstanding contribution against the Crusaders yesterday followed Justin Tipuric’s superb backs-to-the-wall contribution in defeat to the Blues last Wednesday.
Both players are pressing hard for Warburton’s spot on the flank while Stander offers the ball-carrying ballast needed in Billy Vunipola’s injury-enforced absence and would be ideal for the bench.
Fully fit, Warburton would be the first name on Gatland’s teamsheet and he has an impressive history of returning from injury and hitting his straps quickly — just as he did on tour to Australia four years ago.
But he is not superhuman and the odds, at the moment, appear stacked against him. SOMETIMES on Lions tours the best selections come about almost by accident. The history of the famous team is littered with players who defied pre-tour predictions which cast them as destined for the midweek dirt-track side only to demand inclusion with eye-catching performances in the warm-up games.