Bale's old pal Warburton gets lead role

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The Independent Online

While most of Gareth Bale's old school team-mates can only ponder the what-ifs, at least one has the opportunity to shine his own name across the world stage this weekend. The Wales coach, Warren Gatland, has handed Sam Warburton the task of not only filling Martyn Williams' legendary boots against Australia, but also stopping the planet's in-form flanker.

Warburton was happy enough to go along with all the, "will Bale's heroics inspire you?" queries at the team announcement yesterday and revealed how as a Spurs fan he found it "ridiculous" to be watching the boy who once lined up alongside him for Whitchurch High School humiliate Internazionale. But the 22-year-old was more interested in his own elevation. "This is a big, big opportunity for me," said the former centre-half.

Indeed, it is, as Gatland has made a huge call in selecting the young Cardiff Blue above the elderly Cardiff Blue who has single-handedly run the Welsh openside for a decade. Gatland is once again showing his adversity to sentiment, as Williams, the most capped forward in his country's history, has played 99 internationals. If the 35-year-old is to become a centurion tomorrow, he will have to do so from the bench.

This is plainly not about development, either, as in naming a XV which sees James Hook fill in as full-back and the unheralded Dragons flyer, Will Harries, on the right wing, Gatland announced: "We've picked the strongest side available to us."

So Warburton is the number one No 7 and his task is simple – stop David Pocock. The latter was at his marauding, destructive best in Saturday's 26-24 win over the All Blacks and Warburton is considered to boast a physical presence more in suiting with the match-up. "Pocock is their own real defensive player who causes a lot of problems," said Gatland.

Over to Warburton. He fared well against the Springboks in June and says he was "gutted" when a broken jaw he believed was toothache kept him out of the summer tour to New Zealand. Now arrives his moment. Bale or fail? "Pocock is immense," said Warburton. "He's playing fantastically against the best in the world. For such a young guy – he's the same age as me – he's done ever so well. He's a main threat."

* Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter has been fined £21,000, £13,000 of which has been suspended, after being found guilty of misconduct by a European Rugby Cup disciplinary hearing in Dublin yesterday.


Starting XV J Hook; W Harries, T Shanklin, A Bishop, S Williams; S Jones, M Phillips; G Jenkins, M Rees (c), A Jones, B Davies, A W Jones, D Lydiate, S Warburton, J Thomas.

Replacements H Bennett, P James, D Jones, M Williams, R Rees, D Biggar, C Czekaj.

Kick-off Tomorrow, 2.30pm, Millennium Stadium.