British and Irish Lions 2013: Reluctant Wales captain Sam Warburton accepts call to be captain

'Outstanding' leader given responsibility for overseeing first winning tour for 16 years

Two months ago Sam Warburton was marooned on a damp bench in Rome's Olympic Stadium. Not only the captaincy of his country was gone, so was his place in his country's best XV. Later that afternoon Chris Robshaw, the lion-hearted man of the moment, captained England to victory over France at a joyous Twickenham, collecting the man-of-the-match award en route.

Fast-forward to the here and now and two phone calls. Ten days ago Warburton was at his parents' home in Cardiff, spending a quiet Sunday afternoon with his fiancée, Rachel. He heard his phone ring in the kitchen but missed the call. It was from Warren Gatland.

"I thought, 'Crikey, here we go', and legged it upstairs on my own," said Warburton. He rang back the man who had made him captain of Wales two years earlier. Gatland asked him to lead the Lions.

This afternoon Graham Rowntree picked up his phone and dialled a different number. It fell to Rowntree, a member of the England coaching staff and now on Lions secondment, to tell Robshaw why he will be staying at home this summer.

"He is desperately, desperately unlucky," said Rowntree at lunchtime. "It is going to be a difficult conversation."

Much of the make-up of the 37-strong party Warburton will lead to Australia next month was shaken up over the course of those last two rounds of the Six Nations and, in particular, that stunning finale in Cardiff when the Lions were repainted red, having had a white undercoat in place.

Warburton is one of 15 Welshman in the party, the most since 1977, the last time the Lions were led by a Welshman. But what complicated the captaincy call made by Gatland was that Warburton, who at 24 is the youngest Lions captain for more than 50 years, did not lead Wales in the Grand Slam decider. He did not want the captaincy back, a reluctance to take the helm that might cause concern in some quarters but not at the hotel, located a Leigh Halfpenny howitzer from Heathrow, where the squad was announced.

"Both situations are totally different," insisted Rob Howley, Gatland's stand-in as Wales coach and now one of his Lions lieutenants. It was Howley's decision to leave Warburton on the bench in Italy and, when he did restore him against Scotland, to leave the captaincy with Ryan Jones. "For Wales, Sam had been out and the way the game went against France [which Wales won] it was a no-brainer for the captaincy keeping that same side. Sam Warburton is an absolutely fantastic captain. He's got integrity. We never questioned Sam's credibility – it suited Wales at that time and it suited Sam. It was important for Sam to come back and concentrate on his own game."

Warburton had reservations when he first took the Wales captaincy in 2011, but spoke about punching the air with joy as he came crashing down the stairs in his parents' house having taken the Lions job. The situation with Wales in many ways sums it up – it was not about him as captain, it was about the team.

"The first thing you have to prioritise is your performance," said Warburton of why he did not lead Wales against England or Scotland. "That's why going into the last game against England it was the best decision for me and the team not to take the captaincy because I had to make sure I got the performance right. It wasn't about lifting the trophy with Ryan. It was to prove I could play well for the team – that has always been my style."

His performances against Scotland and in the No 6 shirt against England were outstanding and, although he was not the captain, in many ways demonstrate the kind of leader he is. The name being bandied around this leafy corner of Middlesex was one of the great Lions' leaders: Martin Johnson, the last to oversee a winning tour 16 years ago.

"Sam has been outstanding, not in terms of words – his actions are on the pitch," said Neil Jenkins, another of the Welsh contingent on Gatland's staff. "He reminds me a lot of Jonno, the way he plays, the way he goes about things. You just follow Jonno for the way he plays the game – an incredible player – certainly, Sam reminds me of Jonno in that regard."

Warburton, who will have alongside him all his key leaders from the Welsh team as well as two former Lions captains in Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, was suitably flattered by the comparison. "Everything I've heard about Martin Johnson, if I was playing under him I would really respect that kind of leader," he said. "I think that's what works best and that's what players respond to. Hopefully, I can have a recipe that is fairly similar."

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