Six Nations 2014: Sam Warburton bides his time as camp offers welcome distraction
Defence of crown allows Welsh to forget rugby politics
Sam Warburton is in an advanced state of uncertainty: the Wales captain has no clear idea of whether he will be fit enough to face Italy in the first leg of his country's ground-breaking Six Nations quest at the Millennium Stadium in nine days' time, and does not have the faintest clue as to where he might be playing his club rugby next season. What he does know is that he and his red-shirted brethren are in a good place to defend their European title, despite the catastrophic failure of sporting governance west of the River Severn.
Warburton is being pulled three ways on the contract front – Cardiff Blues want the flanker to stay with them; the Welsh Rugby Union want to put him under lock and key; clubs in England and France crave his signature – but he may not choose between his suitors until the end of the biggest annual tournament in the world game.
"Ideally, you want these things sorted before a competition or after it," he said at the Six Nations launch in a swanky corner of south-west London. "If it has to go on the back-burner for a couple of months, so be it."
As for the ravaged nerve in his shoulder, the man who led the Lions to a much-needed series victory in Australia last summer sounded equally philosophical. "I haven't ticked the contact box yet, and until I do that I can't move on to the next stage," he admitted. "If I can do what I'm meant to be doing by the end of this week, I'd be happy to play against the Italians.
"But I've been in this kind of position before and the question is whether I need some game time before trying to perform at international level. We'll discuss it, but it might be best for me to play for the Blues instead. Fortunately, we have the luxury of a world-class open-side flanker like Justin Tipuric in our squad."
For all that, Warburton seemed blissfully serene about the challenge of helping Wales secure an unprecedented hat-trick of championship titles. The principality may be experiencing the torments of rugby hell as the conflict between the governing body and its four professional regional teams continues unabated, but when it comes to putting on a show in the Test arena, the nation somehow comes together in a common gladiatorial spirit.
"In a strange way, I think the players find life in the Wales camp a nice distraction from everything that's going on outside," said Warren Gatland, the head coach, by way of explanation. "We spoke about this issue when we got together earlier in the week: I said there are things we can't control, can't fix, and there are things we can control. And that's the point. The Wales camp is a happy camp; what is absolutely clear to me is the sense of pride the players have in pulling on the shirt.
"The third title is a real focus for us, definitely. There are players in the group who will tell you that they've continually had the success of the Wales team of the 1970s rammed down their throats, year after year. That was four decades ago. It's about time a new era dawned and this side made some history of its own. That's the motivation."
Not that Gatland is in any way oblivious to the rancour eating its way through Welsh rugby's body politic. The New Zealander, positively garlanded with awards in recent weeks after his annus mirabilis in 2013, acknowledged that basic economics was at the heart of the problem and tacitly accepted that more leading players would desert the regions for better-paid work in the cash-rich leagues of England and France.
"I spoke to a player a few days ago who said he'd been offered twice the money in the French Top 14 than he had been in the Premiership," the coach reported. "Ideally, we want our leading players to stay in Wales, but it's market forces, isn't it? There's no doubt that in France especially, there are significant financial benefits on offer.
"There's also a trade-off: if you move over there, you don't get much of an off-season, you get flogged because you're expected to play so many games, the medical treatment isn't as good as it is here, the strength and conditioning work isn't as good… I'd also say that the coaching isn't as good.
"Having said that, if players aren't going to stay in Wales I'd prefer them to go to France than to England, purely because they can negotiate full release for international training and fixtures. That's more difficult to do with the Premiership clubs.
"But it's still tough for us to see players leaving the country. New Zealand rugby has the same issue with Japan, where there's a lot of money to be made, but the New Zealanders can cope because they have the player base. Do we have the player base? Can we cope with losing some of our top players at 27 or 28 because they head for France in search of a pension? I'm not sure."
It was a powerful point, very well made. Wales are perfectly capable of landing that third successive title, despite their difficult trips to Dublin a fortnight on Saturday and Twickenham in early March, but Six Nations glory will not provide the really big questions with serious answers.
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