Six Nations: It helps my game when I am not Wales captain, says Sam Warburton
'This is probably my career highlight, it’s an absolutely amazing feeling'
By sidestepping the captaincy of Wales, Sam Warburton served only to demonstrate why Warren Gatland regarded him so highly in the first place. His leadership qualities were etched in every hit and carry during the subjugation of England.
Deferring to Gethin Jenkins and Ryan Jones in order to bring his own brand of athletic savagery to bear in the back row does not necessarily remove him from the thoughts of the Lions head coach.
Which brings us back to where we started at the beginning of the Six Nations Championship when the job of leading the squad in Australia was thought to be a talent contest between Warburton, England skipper Chris Robshaw and Irish luminary Brian O'Driscoll.
Providence was not kind to O'Driscoll, who ended the championship a loser, and particularly cruel to Robshaw, who for 45 minutes at least on Saturday was a man going places; the Grand Slam was still on and the Lions captaincy a consideration.
And then the tsunami hit. Robshaw was claimed by a wall of red water the like of which he had never seen and washed up on the Millennium shore like so much dead wood.
The idea then that Robshaw might captain the home nations now was laughed out of Westgate Street by raucous Welshmen eulogising the contributions of the rampant Welsh flanker Jason Tipuric, back-row anchor Toby Faletau and the man they would have start in the Lions No 7 shirt, Warburton, back to his belligerent best. Warburton combines the physique of Michelangelo's David with a titan's heart.
His man-of the-match display against Scotland at Murrayfield was followed by another compelling 80 minutes, raising the intensity to a pitch that reduced the befuddled opposition to a state of anomy.
Warburton (below) is too smart to indulge those playing fantasy Lions selection. It was far safer to keep the Wales captaincy debate ticking over. "I am just enjoying what we are going through at the moment," Warburton said. "If Ryan was to keep the captaincy or Gethin was to keep it, I wouldn't complain. They are two phenomenal players with a load of experience, and I am learning off both those guys all the time.
"I think people can look into the captaincy a little bit too much. It is a massive honour, but not to have it, I was able just to focus on myself.
"If I concentrate on my own role, then I have done my bit for the team. It is one less thing to think about. The last two games it was a conversation with Rob Howley [Wales' interim coach] and we just thought to keep things as they were in the Scotland match and allow me to focus on myself again.
"For me, the most important thing is starting for Wales and making sure I can play well when I do that."
England coach Stuart Lancaster stayed at the team hotel yesterday to sieve the debris for clues that might explain how a team that came to claim a Grand Slam could suffer such a harrowing a fate. Robshaw did what he could to staple the whole together in the first half but too few of his team-mates followed him over the top.
The imperious Welsh front five broke England's spirit and in the second half the back row ran amok.
"This is probably the highlight of my career. It is an absolutely amazing feeling," Warburton said. "To do it in the way we did, to come back after losing the first game against Ireland is really special. We worked so hard behind closed doors.
"Ryan Jones said to the players the week after we lost to Ireland that you don't always have to win championships with a Grand Slam, you can win them even after losing a game. That was then the focus after Ireland, to make sure we won every game. That was the target, and we managed to achieve it."
At the outset of this championship Howley was a shrunken figure, his attempts to talk up a team that had lost seven on the spin, four of them at home, including the shapeless no-shows against Argentina and Samoa, cast him as a madman.
The first 20 minutes at home against Ireland suggested the Grand Slam champions, the team that reached the World Cup semi-finals, were spent, Howley, too.
They weren't. The three wins on the road that followed were modest in scope and execution, sufficient to deliver them to the final fixture with dignity restored and an opportunity to take English trousers down. What more can a Welshman ask?
An eight-point margin would have been enough to deny England a 13th Grand Slam and secure the Six Nations for themselves. But this group wanted more than that. They sensed immortality. That might yet come this summer in a Lions shirt.
"It was tough, losing those games. I hadn't been through that before as a player, but I think everyone has come through it much stronger," Warburton said. "When we won the Grand Slam last year, we'd had a successful World Cup campaign and having lost those eight games makes you appreciate the good times a lot more. As a team you are going to have ups and downs, you are not going to be on an upward curve all the time. It is about believing in yourself, and things will come good in the end."
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