Sam Warburton proved himself a master of timing when he waited for the Six Nations decider with England in March to play his most convincing rugby of the season. On Saturday, he must pull the same trick against an extremely serious Queensland Reds outfit in front of a 50,000 crowd if he is to reinforce his Lions captaincy credentials before the Test series with the Wallabies, which begins in this very city 15 days from now.
The 24-year-old flanker from Cardiff will make his first appearance of the tour, and become the 800th player to represent the Lions into the bargain, after missing the comfortable victories over the Barbarians in Hong Kong and Western Force in Perth through injury – games in which his rivals for the No 7 shirt, his fellow Welsh breakaway Justin Tipuric and the Irish back-rower Sean O'Brien, delivered eye-catching displays. The implications of their performances have not been lost on him.
"I have to fight as hard for my place as anyone, definitely," Warburton said after confessing to the frustrations of nursing a knee ligament strain through the early stages of Lions business. "When Warren [Gatland, the Lions head coach] asked me to lead this squad, I told him that my main concern about captaincy was the risk of complacency. I like going to team meetings and waiting for the side to be announced; I like to go to bed the night before wondering if I'm going to play. You want the element of not knowing. It's what drives you in training.
"It's not in my nature to be complacent. I think I'm a good competitor who always strives to be better, so I would never sit back and relax, thinking that a Test place is assured. Justin has been playing really well as a No 7 for two or three years now, so I've been in this situation with him for much of my international career. As for Sean, I've always found him tough to play against. I thought he was outstanding in Perth and I hope I get to play with him at some point on this trip."
While Gatland and his principal advisors would not lose a moment's sleep over pairing an in-form Warburton with either Tipuric or O'Brien in the Tests – it should be remembered that the captain's partnership with the former was at the heart of their country's rampaging victory over England at the Millennium Stadium last time out – there are two blind-side specialists, Dan Lydiate and Tom Croft, to be factored into the equation. When Gatland comes to pick his optimum starting XV, the call on the loose combination will be desperately tight.
"Playing against Queensland in a Welsh back row is fine by me," said Warburton, who will be accompanied by Lydiate and the No 8 Toby Faletau against the Reds. "But it would be good to play with the others too. I always knew that this area of the side would be one of the strongest. You only have to look at who isn't here: the England captain Chris Robshaw, the Scotland captain Kelly Brown, and Stephen Ferris of Ireland, who would have been in the mix if he wasn't injured."
Neither of the two previous Lions captains in this party, the Irish centre Brian O'Driscoll and his countryman, the lock Paul O'Connell, will start Saturday's game: O'Driscoll is rested after putting two fine tries past the Force while O'Connell, who led the side in Hong Kong, must make do with a seat on the bench. According to Warburton, both have made strong contributions as senior figures without being domineering – a fine balance to strike.
"They've been great: they're both really supportive, really nice guys," the skipper said. "Me? I'm just prioritising performance. A lot of people complicate captaincy, but there are five things I swear by: having a positive attitude, developing as a player and building relationships, being professional and getting it right on the pitch. If I can tick those boxes, I feel I've done my job. And there won't be any pre-planned cheesy speeches, either. I'll think about what to tell the players on the bus to the stadium. I'll say what comes naturally. You have to speak from the heart."
Had Warburton not been declared fit for this match, his captaincy could easily have become ceremonial rather than active, an exercise in bitter frustration. As it is, he finds himself in very good company. Sixteen years ago, when the Lions last won a Test series, an orthopaedically challenged Martin Johnson missed the opening games of the tour and went on to fight the Springboks to a standstill. As omens go, it is not the worst.Reuse content