Sam Warburton finally knows who will be employing him next season and how much he can expect to earn after signing a central contract with the Welsh Rugby Union – the kind of contract rejected by two of his fellow Red Dragon titans, the full-back Leigh Halfpenny and the lock Alun Wyn Jones, in favour of alternative deals with Toulon and Ospreys respectively. What Warburton does not know is how many top-level club games he will play if the sport’s alleged “leaders” fail to break the impasse over the future of the Heineken Cup.
The Wales and Lions captain indicated some weeks ago that he would prefer to remain in the country if at all possible and by becoming the first player to apply his thumbprint to a union contract, said to be worth around £270,000 a year, he proved a loyal servant to the game in the principality.
But he is now a hostage to fortune. Should European talks break down irretrievably over the next few days and the four Welsh regions push on with fall-back plans to join the English Premiership, there is no guarantee that Cardiff Blues, his current side, would pick him.
Despite a loud trumpeting of the Warburton deal by the WRU – the governing body said that under the terms of the contract, the flanker would be loaned back to the Blues “free of charge” – there was no response from the Cardiff hierarchy.
Given the inevitable fall-out from any move to establish an Anglo-Welsh Premiership without official permission, it would be most unlikely that the English clubs or the Welsh regions would welcome the presence of any centrally contracted individual.
Meanwhile, the England coaching team believe the Northampton back-rower Tom Wood will be fit for the opening Six Nations game with France on Saturday, after medical checks on what looked to be a serious facial injury suffered in a semi-opposed training session last week.
Wood, one of the team’s more influential figures, clashed heads with Tom Johnson, his rival from Exeter, prompting strong rumours that the damage was sufficiently substantial to put his entire tournament under threat. Those rumours were quashed yesterday.
Judging by events in the second-string international at Kingsholm on Saturday evening, the last thing England need are problems in the loose forward department. The Saxons back-row unit – Calum Clark of Northampton, Luke Wallace of Harlequins and Dave Ewers of Exeter – were comprehensively outplayed by the Irish Wolfhounds trio of Rhys Ruddock, Tommy O’Donnell and Robin Copeland, who set the terms of the breakdown conflict early and then dominated it.
There was also a striking contribution from the young Leinster flanker Jordi Murphy, who made a couple of vital contributions after replacing O’Donnell at the start of the final quarter.
Neither was there much joy for the Saxons half-backs, Joe Simpson of Wasps and Freddie Burns of Gloucester, who were out-manoeuvred by Isaac Boss and Ian Madigan over the course of the visitors’ 14-8 victory.
Both Irish half-backs claimed tries, Boss with a dart around the poorly defended fringes early in the game and Madigan with a tap-and-go attack just shy of the half-hour mark. Burns, desperate for a big performance after the trials and tribulations of recent weeks, was off-key with his goal-kicking, and even when he put himself in a position to snatch victory at the death, the ball slipped from his grasp as he dived for the corner.
Anthony Watson, the teenage Bath wing who scored the Saxons’ lone try after fielding a ricochet off his opposite number Craig Gilroy, was generally judged to have had a successful outing. He is, however, considered an outsider for duty in Paris.