Sam Warburton: 'The flak is part of playing for Wales'
The flanker knows that when he and his team play poorly the grief is inevitable. But, he tells Matt Lloyd, the good times are just around the corner
As Sam Warburton illuminates a group of youngsters from St David's RFC in the dark arts of openside rugby at the WRU's national centre for excellence, the words emblazoned on the wall behind him say it all: "Yesterday is in the Past".
Yet more insipid motivational jargon from the team's American kit manufacturers? Possibly. A mantra by which the national captain lives by? Most certainly.
Warburton is a forward-thinking forward. He has had to be. There has been a clamour of voices declaring the fall of Welsh rugby's role model after he was rested on the bench against Samoa last week. And he was "rested", not "dropped" as many have claimed – he's back in the side for tomorrow's visit of the All Blacks – but there's no doubt his form has dipped from the giddy heights of last year.
The former Wales international back-row Emyr Lewis has even questioned whether Warburton was still struggling to shake off the psychological impact of his now infamous red card in last year's World Cup semi-final.
Warburton, resigned to the fact that his name will forever be inextricably linked to "that" tackle, said: "If a player was still struggling with dealing with that 12 months down the line then they're in serious trouble. That's definitely not the case. I've had good performances since then so the red card is no longer an issue. It really isn't."
In a country where the national conscience reflects the success of its rugby team, only the red No 10 jersey provokes more bar-room debate than the Wales captaincy, which is branded a "poisoned chalice" by many of Warburton's predecessors. His mentor Martyn Williams even turned down the post because of the baggage that comes with the armband but Warburton, still only 24, has the chin to take the knocks.
"I've got pretty thick skin which I've inherited from my dad. My mother and sister are a bit more sensitive to it. I tell them not to read stuff but they still do and they are learning now to stay away from it," he said. "When I was younger and first became captain I sought positive media, especially from other players. It's something I've worked with the psychologist over, seeking approval from players such as Martyn [Williams]. He was a hero of mine growing up and if he complimented me, it would fill me with confidence."
This time last year, Warburton could do little wrong in the eyes of the Welsh fans and management, even after his sending-off. Would either have been as forgiving had Mike Phillips, Andy Powell or dare say Gavin Henson been sent off in a World Cup semi-final?
"It was actually Martyn who gave me great advice. He said, 'You're never as good as they say and never as bad.' Recently I've had to remember that."
For many the dip in form of the captain embodies the loss of confidence within the squad.
Such is the dramatic turnaround, even for the volatile world of Welsh rugby, Warburton's younger sister Holly was forced to remove herself from Twitter following criticism of her brother. As ever, the captain calmly took it in his stride.
"I actually had a go at her [Holly] about that. She basically searched my name online and out of the hundreds and thousands of people on Twitter there are obviously going to be a few who don't like you," said Warburton.
"I asked her, 'Why are you even looking at this stuff?'. She got upset about it because a lot of my family are not used to me getting such public criticism after things generally went so well over the past 18 months. But I told my parents, it's not all going to be fine for the next 10 years of my career. There are going to be ups and downs.
"Look at Jonny Wilkinson [a player Warburton admits he has modelled himself on]. He's the most-loved guy in English rugby yet even he has had his fair share of criticism. All you need is support of team-mates, family and coaches."
For Warburton, as with many of this young and vibrant Welsh side, their current quandary represents new territory for them.
Five Test defeats in a row, including the woefully lacklustre displays this month against both Argentina and Samoa, have not only taken the gloss off but damaged the bodywork of their World Cup and Six Nations success.
But Warburton said: "Some guys like George North and Alex Cuthbert have only really been involved when Wales are doing very well and suddenly players are getting criticised. Some of them take it personally but they have to realise that people are only having a go because they care about how Wales play.
"It hasn't affected me personally because I know it's part and parcel of professional sport. Look at the sort of pressure Premier League footballers are under, the flak we're getting is not that bad. You don't become a good team overnight but you also don't become a bad team either. There's nothing to panic about and I'm sure things will come good again."
It could be worse. Warburton could be plying his trade in New Zealand as he prepares to face, arguably, the greatest openside flanker in world rugby: Richie McCaw. "I couldn't get over the expectation out in New Zealand during the World Cup. Even after 100 caps and becoming a modern legend, McCaw was still getting criticism until he lifted the trophy," recalled Warburton.
The European champions, depleted by injuries to key forwards, are hardly showing the form to offer realistic chances that tomorrow at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff they will end their 59-year wait to beat the All Blacks, a record that has created an inferiority complex in the Valleys and beyond.
"When you grow up hearing that the All Blacks are the best team in the world, you grow up expecting that to always be the case and I think that has hindered the Welsh psyche," said Warburton. "Everyone loves rugby here but you still hear about the All Blacks so much that perhaps that doesn't put enough confidence in players coming through. They are the best team in the world and rightly so. Facing New Zealand is something different to other internationals but we have to have the belief that we can become that team."
The return from injury and British Lions duties of Warren Gatland is sure to have a galvanising effect upon his charges as they steel themselves to face the Haka, some for the first time.
"He's very good at bringing confidence to the squad," Warburton insists. "He's very confident in his own ability and that rubs off on the players. He instils that confidence that we can play better than we think we can. We're still the same team that won a Grand Slam and nearly won in Australia in the summer. You can over-complicate things and over-analyse where you went wrong. We just have to play with more intensity and confidence."
Gatland will also decide whether or not Warburton will captain the Lions in Australia next summer, but the Cardiff Blues player, who is likely to buck the trend by rejecting overtures from France, remained phlegmatic following recent weeks.
He said: "I've always played down the Lions and recent events have proved that was the right thing to do. That's not me being diplomatic because I would obviously love to go with the Lions, but I have the right priorities."
Sam Warburton was speaking on behalf of Thomas Cook Sport, official travel partner of the WRU. Packages are now available for the RBS Six Nations and The Lions Tour of Australia in 2013. Call 0844 800 9900 or visit: thomascooksport.com
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