Warburton focused on making Lions history

10:00 PM BST

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When Sam Warburton boarded the plane at Heathrow for New Zealand just under five long weeks ago, he had left his phone at home in Cardiff. The British & Irish Lions captain was in tunnel vision, challenging himself to be in the best shape possible, focusing on returning from New Zealand as a victorious captain having thrown everything, body and mind, at the cause.

Warburton spoke masterfully on Thursday. There was a sensitivity about Peter O’Mahony’s absence from the matchday squad for Saturday, there was a bullishness about areas they need to improve on for the All Blacks and there was also this underlying inspirational quality which he possesses as he weighed up the future of the Lions and his place in ensuring this weekend goes better than the last.

You could see why Warren Gatland holds him in such high esteem; he commands a room through personality rather than bluster. But outside praise, perception and pressure does not come into it for Warburton. He is living in the “bubble of the Lions tour”, as he puts it, with his usual phone still at home in Cardiff.

He has just five contacts on the one he has in Wellington. He has learned from prior experiences that there are all manner of distractions heading in the Lions captain’s direction, from requests for signed shirts to tickets.

This time around he has locked himself away, head down in a laptop, looking for those little areas to swing a Test series. But he did get a taste of the buzz around the tour when he journeyed out on Wednesday to meet some friends from home to buy them a beer. It was the first time he had really guaged the ‘sea of red’ in a setting away from the stadium.

He knows full well the pressure on this team, but also on cementing its place in rugby’s future. “Without sounding too strong I’d be gutted, devastated, if the Lions was ever lost,” Warburton said. But such thoughts are for men in suits to decide, not those following Warburton out onto the Westpac Stadium turf on Saturday.

Though he captained the Lions in Test matches four years ago, there is something about it which really captures Warburton’s imagination. He said sitting on the bench last weekend was the third biggest highlight in his career. He had to be brutally honest with himself and Gatland in the run up as he nursed the ankle injury suffered in the opening match. He felt he was short of his best form; it was admirable honesty.

But now he feels ready to fight for the Test series and embracing the challenge of seeing off a team he has never beaten.

With Wales they have run them close, but never got over the line; it is why Saturday is about as much a test of the mind as it is matter. “I always pride myself that I’ll never quit, ever,” Warburton said. “I think in a team of 15 players, you only need two or three guys to think that, to drop their head and that could be the game gone.

“You need 15 guys who stay on it for the whole 80 minutes and those guys who come off the bench, exactly the same.”

Warburton leads the Lions out for their opening tour match in Whangarei. David Rogers/Getty Images

And then there is the challenging of separating their 15 opponents on Saturday from the All Blacks aura of invincibility. “For me it isn’t the colour of a jersey, they’re all human beings who we’re playing and anybody can get put under pressure, anybody,” Warburton said. “It’s about making sure we can do that on Saturday.”

Central to the Lions’ task is improving their physicality. It has been the theme running through this week, but Warburton is the sort of character who breaks down broad-stroke terms. There is a preciseness about the way he speaks.

“Being physical doesn’t mean beating people up, it means your scrum is dominant, your lineout is dominant, your breakdown is dominant and that’s the majority of the game really apart from the kicking side.

“That has to improve this weekend, I think the guys that have been brought in can add a bit of strength to that.”

Warburton pointed to the impact he hopes Maro Itoje will have from the start — “Maro’s great on the floor as well, a great lineout athlete and I’m looking forward to see him go” – and his excitement at playing alongside Sean O’Brien for the first time, someone he regards as one of the best sevens he has faced.

But then overarching everything, above all the dialogue, the rhetoric and intentions is the goal of winning. A victory over the All Blacks would top everything Warburton’s achieved in a rich and varied career.

“It’d be No. 1,” Warburton said. “It’s definitely the biggest challenge of my career so far. It’s the one team I haven’t beaten in world rugby as well so it’s something I’m desperate to achieve.

“I have managed to beat every other nation in the world but I haven’t beaten New Zealand and for that fact with being away from home, starting in a Test match, it’s going to be the biggest honour in my career leading the boys on Saturday. I can’t wait for that.”

Source Article from http://www.espn.co.uk/rugby/story/_/id/19766542/sam-warburton-cuts-bid-make-lions-history-new-zealand
Warburton focused on making Lions history
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