Sam Warburton's plunge from Wales captain to Red Dragon bench-bunny set many a tongue wagging in the Principality yesterday, but reports of his demise as an international force are seriously premature. The Cardiff Blues flanker, demoted after his side's abject display against Argentina last weekend, can expect to return to the starting line-up for the forthcoming meetings with New Zealand and Australia and remains a warm favourite to lead the British and Irish Lions in Australia next June.
Yet this is not to say the future is all plain sailing. Justin Tipuric, the Ospreys breakaway selected to face the dangerous Samoans at the Millennium Stadium tomorrow night, is a serious player: indeed, some good judges west of the Severn consider him the form No 7 in the country, Warburton or no Warburton. If the understudy performs to his level and Wales redeem themselves by winning well against the strongest of the South Seas teams, the Six Nations champions' approach to the rest of the autumn will be interesting indeed.
Tipuric has been playing the house down all season and was never likely to find himself kicking his heels for the whole of this international programme. Given the short gap between the Argentina and Samoa fixtures, this game had his name written all over it – especially as the extreme physical nature of the islanders' rugby puts injury-prone flankers like Warburton at significant risk. In addition, Wales need to blood a second No 7, having gone years without a realistic alternative to Warburton's revered predecessor at both club and Test levels, Martyn Williams.
"With the six-day turnaround, it's important to freshen things up and also make use of the competition for places we have within the squad," said Rob Howley, the assistant coach charged with running the show while Warren Gatland is absent on Lions business. "That competition has been a key ingredient in our success over the last 18 months."
The leadership duties tomorrow will be performed by a second Ospreys flanker – one rather more battle-hardened than the 23-year-old Tipuric. Ryan Jones has taken on the burden and assuming nothing adverse happens to him between now and kick-off time, he will surpass the former winger Ieuan Evans's record of 28 appearances as national skipper.
"We need to put a few things right tactically and technically and get a good result under our belt," said the Lions Test forward.
"There is a feeling, a real desire, to do that. A lot of our guys have had an awful lot of success in their careers so far and when that becomes the norm, blips and disappointments can be difficult to handle. But the process has to be the same. Win or lose, you analyse, you pick the bones out of it and you move on."
Mike Phillips, the Lions scrum-half, returns to the starting combination for Tavis Knoyle; Dan Biggar, the gifted Ospreys outside-half, replaces Rhys Priestland in the No 10 position; and the tight forwards Richard Hibbard and Bradley Davies are in for the injured Matthew Rees and Alun Wyn Jones at hooker and lock respectively. Paul James is preferred to Gethin Jenkins at loose-head prop while Ashley Beck is given a chance in midfield ahead of Scott Williams.
Samoa, meanwhile, have named a side stronger than the one that took Wales to the edge during last year's World Cup in New Zealand. David Lemi, one of the least predictable wings in international rugby, will lead a team featuring major talents in the half-back pairing of Tusiata Pisi and Kahn Fotuali'i, the Toulouse prop Census Johnston and the Harlequins flanker Maurie Fa'asavalu.
Play it again, Sam: Ups and downs of Warburton's career
6 June 2009 Makes senior international debut against the USA, aged 20
19 January 2010 In Wales squad for Six Nations
9 May 2011 Made Wales' second youngest captain – behind Gareth Edwards – for match v Barbarians, aged 22 years and 242 days.
22 August Named Wales' youngest ever World Cup captain, for the 2011 tournament in New Zealand.
15 October Sent off in World Cup semi-final against France by the referee Allain Rolland in the 18th minute, Wales lose the match by a single point.
February/March 2012 Injury-ridden for most of the Six Nations, but named man of the match against England. Lifts Grand Slam trophy with arm in sling after leaving pitch at half-time v France.
November Below-par performance in loss to Argentina leads to Warburton being dropped for game with Samoa.
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