Whatever you think of Sam Warburton, he has been a fantastic servant for Welsh rugby. With the news coming that he is to step down as Wales captain, there is a sense he doesn’t back himself to overcome his recent form and injury troubles, but he will surely add to his 69 caps for his country. With fellow flanker Justin Tipuric the only shining light in Wales’ poor Autumn International campaign and Ross Moriarty coming through, his decision to step down is a noble one but perhaps the right call. With a Lions tour approaching in the summer, he wants to take the decision out of Warren Gatland’s hands to pick him as skipper, with the Welshman leading the British & Irish side four years ago. We take a look at what a Wales without a captain Warburton will be missing.
Work rate and tackle count
When thinking of Sam Warburton, work rate is what springs to mind. The flanker will run through brick walls for his team, and this is perhaps what made Warren Gatland give him the captaincy in the first place, despite having only played 20 times for his country. More often than not the flanker is putting in over 10 tackles a match, regardless if he is playing on the open or blind-side. His tackling sometimes lands him in hot water however, with the skipper seeing red in the 2011 World Cup for a tip tackle on France’s Vincent Clerc, ultimately costing Wales a place in the final.
His work-rate leads by example, but the 28-year-old is often seen geeing up his teammates, whether it be before a match or at crucial moments. Most memorably this was shown as England and Wales locked horns at the 2015 World Cup, with England opting to kick for touch to search for a win in the dying moments. Warburton took his players aside, told them to give it everything they’d got to drive the resulting line-out back out of play. It worked brilliantly, and Wales went through to the knockout stages. With Warburton at the helm, Wales have won the Six Nations to years in a row, including a Grand Slam triumph in 2012.
If the shoe had been on the other foot, and Wales were the ones to have made that call, whether to kick for goal and take a draw or push for the win, you can imagine that the cool-headed Warburton would have taken the guarantee of a draw, to keep yourselves well in the competition. It has helped the Cardiff man that he has had brilliant goal-kickers to work with almost throughout his tenure as Wales captain, with Leigh Halfpenny and Dan Biggar kicking a lot more through the posts than they miss. Warburton’s decision making as skipper has never been called into question.
The WRU currently use a wildcard system to pick players based outside of Wales. This means every match that she players outside of the Welsh clubs can be picked, but despite having offers from abroad in the past, Warburton has stayed loyal to the WRU. Things got tetchy towards the end of 2013, with Warburton and Wales in their pomp, the flanker had approaches from the Premiership and France, but he encouraged the WRU to fund a deal to keep him at his beloved Cardiff Blues. They did, and Warburton is closing in on 100 appearances for the Pro12 club.
Alun Wyn Jones is the hot favourite to replace Warburton when interim coach Rob Howley names Wales’s Six Nations squad on January 17th. But with Warren Gatland on a break as Wales head coach to focus on the Lions one again, this is likely only to be a short-term appointment. Jones it 31, and could lead Wales for a few years, but he will be 34 when the World Cup in Japan kicks off in 2019. Howley and Gatland will need to be confident that the lock will make it to the tournament, and they could choose someone slightly younger like the 30-year-old Jamie Roberts or Justin Tipuric, 27.
What do you make of Warburton’s decision? Who should replace him as both Wales and Lions captain? Let us know in the comments section below.