James Lawton: Sam Warburton’s call to arms shows a Lions general on verge of greatness

The World fell about him in Auckland and could have coloured his career

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It is a brave call of the captain of the Lions that his team should march unbeaten through Australia. It makes the blood race a little faster.

He evokes the achievement of his predecessor Willie John McBride in South Africa 39 years ago and at a time when the Wallabies are candid about their new and essentially craven policy of hiding in the bush.

But when you think about it, was there ever a warrior less reluctant to pick up his musket than Sam Warburton?

If he pulls it off, if he delivers a triumph that will pump new life into the concept of the Lions as both the most potent threat to the dominance of the Southern Hemisphere and still a vibrant presence in the age of professionalism, it will be a personal triumph of the highest order.

It will also say – apart from the fact that Lions coach Warren Gatland made one of the best decisions of his career when he picked as leader one of the youngest members of the 37-man squad – there is so much more to the sporting life than a careful measuring of the odds against victory and defeat. It will declare that if you are given inordinate talent, if you have the chance to make the world your stage, you are obliged to grasp it in the most confident grip.

You also have to come back stronger from a place which might have broken the will – or at least the optimism – of lesser men.

This, surely, is the story of Warburton since the world he had constructed so brilliantly fell about him in Eden Park, Auckland, just a few days  after his 23rd birthday. It happened in the time it took Irish referee Alain Rolland to flash a red card at him after his tackle on that wisp of a French winger, Vincent Clerc. Anyone who was in the arena on that night of Wales’s World Cup semi-final will surely never forget that numbness when he  walked from the field with the match that might have helped colour the rest of his life still unformed.

The debate still lingers, of course. Many said that the official had no option given the guidelines put in place after the spear tackle inflicted on Brian O’Driscoll by All Blacks Tana Umaga and Kevev Mealamu in Wellington six years earlier. Others said the enactment of law without reference to intent would always be inherently wrong. They included one of Warburton’s most ardent admirers, the great All Black No 8 and captain Wayne “Buck” Shelford.

Shelford, who had been much impressed by the Welsh effort in the World Cup and Warburton’s part in it, said, “I woke up this morning feeling badly for this outstanding young rugby player. He has put in a magnificent effort here. I think a yellow card would have been a more appropriate punishment and I just hope he puts the disappointment behind him.”

Of course Warburton attempted to do so with some grace, conceding that after reviewing the film and coming to terms with his disappointment, the referee had probably taken what he had considered the only viable option.

Troubled by injury, ambivalent about the Wales captaincy, Warburton’s journey has not exactly been untrammelled since that night of perverse fate. However, in the last few months there has been the most emphatic evidence that the qualities Buck Shelford first responded to so warmly are back in place.

At Murrayfield he was the relentless hammer of the Scots. At the Millennium Stadium he helped destroy England. Today, in Brisbane, it is reasonable to expect the kind of performance that enveloped the competitive imagination of the formidable Shelford.

If you are a young flanker, and leader, of the highest ambition you could probably ransack all of rugby in pursuit of a more significant admirer.

Shelford’s most dramatic example of extraordinary fortitude came early in his career in the notorious Battle of Nantes in 1985, where a ruck in which he finished beneath several French forwards left him in dire need of repairs. His injuries included a torn scrotum and four broken teeth but he managed to persuade the team physio to sew up his groin. Naturally, he returned  to the action before being led off with concussion from a boot in the head.

Two years later he played a key role in New Zealand’s triumph in the inaugural World Cup and then his captaincy of the  All Blacks was unblemished by a single defeat between 1987 and 1990.

When such a man has placed so much faith in both your ability and your competitive character, calling for an unbeaten Lions tour is perhaps not the greatest reach.

It certainly makes a great deal of psychological and perhaps even strategic sense when you set it against the abysmal decision of Western Force to greet the Lions with a team half composed of phantoms in Perth earlier this week. The endangered Australia coach Robbie Deans has not so much put the wagons in a circle as galloped back to the fort. He plans to spring a series of Test match ambushes against a team short of the most demanding competition.

It is a policy that has caused disquiet even amid Australian ranks. A Lions tour, whatever else it is, is supposed to involve quite a bit of attrition. It is supposed to test the nerve and the durability of a team which has come to put everything on the line.

This ambition is not helped when the response of those who are supposed to set the tests, and stretch the sinew, is to lurk in the night like a bunch of dingoes. Still, we are told the resistance of the Queensland Reds today will be a little stiffer. This at least is a proper response to the musket sound of young Sam Warburton.

Giles should talk up England’s strengths

England cricket’s one-day supremo Ashley Giles was no doubt hugely relieved this week by the magnificent belligerence of his match-winner Jos Buttler. This, however, makes it somewhat regrettable that he hasn’t concentrated a little more on the revival of a team that looked so desperately down while losing the one-day series to New Zealand. Instead, he chose to dwell on Australia’s troubles, which are compounded by the absence of their brilliant batsman and captain Michael Clarke for today’s Champions Trophy match against England.

“It’s always a good thing when Australia get bowled out for 65,” said Giles. “You’re pleased they haven’t had the practice they wanted and the boost in confidence they were looking for. You don’t want them playing well.” This is especially true, perhaps, when but for a victory in a dead rubber, you have been playing pretty much like drains yourselves. Yet it is also true that kicking any Australian team when they are on the floor does not exactly command the force of history.

Swansea’s fairy tale could be turning sour

It seems that not all fairy stories have happy endings, at least not at the club which spent much of the season twinkling so brightly it might have come out of the pages of Hans Christian Andersen.

Swansea City’s hugely praised and almost invariably engaging manager Michael Laudrup said it himself after reaching the final of the League Cup against Bradford City. He said that of course Bradford had a big fairy story while his team had a small one. Not any more, apparently, with reports that he and Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins have become estranged over transfer policy.

Jenkins has received well-deserved credit for a superbly run club, but with Europe on the horizon it is a little surprising  he hasn’t deferred a little more to the instincts of his latest manager. If signing Michu for £2 million doesn’t earn the right to a word in the chairman’s ear it is hard to know what might. Y