Wales’ Six Nations team announcement on Tuesday brought about plenty of headlines, but the biggest of all was that Sam Warburton is stepping down as the national team captain, thus bringing about an end to an era of Welsh rugby.
Taking on the captaincy as a result of Matthew Rees’ injury in the build up to the 2011 World Cup, Warburton became the youngest ever captain of Wales’ rugby team, but did not let this distract him from putting in several magnificent performances as he announced himself on the World stage.
As an imperious operator at the breakdown and a ferocious tackler, he was soon mentioned in the same breath as Richie McCaw in terms of World’s best openside flankers, while his leadership style was cemented as a leader by example rather than by any over the top theatrics.
Despite the infamous red card during the semi-final against France he went on to keep the Wales captaincy, leading the side to the 2012 Grand Slam and 2013 Six Nations titles, before breaking the record amount of times a player has captained the country during the 2015 tournament, a tally he has now taken to 49.
As well as these successes, I’m sure his greatest achievement will be leading the 2013 British and Irish Lions to a series win in Australia. Just like with Wales, he is the youngest ever Lions captain, but would unfortunately pick up an injury in the second test that meant he missed the tour winning final game.
He shared the trophy lifting with his replacement on the day, Alun Wyn Jones, and it will be the big Ospreys lock who takes over the reigns of the national side from Warburton, in a move that very few could argue with, but the question now is ‘what next for Sam our captain?’
Rob Howley certainly seemed to suggest that Warburton has a fight on his hands to retain his Wales place, “No player is guaranteed their place in an international team and we want Sam to be playing his very best rugby and he agrees this is the best way forward”, however, for me, he is almost un-droppable.
Looking at his Cardiff Blues form, Sam is currently on a run of six straight appearances in club rugby, his most since September/October 2014 and has made double figures in starts for only the third time in seven years. Aside from an early departure against Bath away, he has also played 80 minutes in each of the games.
As he is likely to be selected in the XV against Bristol on Saturday, and captain the side, there’s certainly no questioning his appetite to be a leader of men, and certainly not his fitness which is probably better leading into a Six Nations than it has been since the title winning 2013 campaign. Mix that in with his ability to find an extra gear for Wales, and he is more than ready for the next two months.
It’s all well and good being fit though if you can’t back it up with form and, contrary to what a lot of people who clearly don’t watch Cardiff regularly, have written, Warburton has been playing very well in a blue shirt.
There were positive signs after a typically imperious performance at the breakdown during the home win at Bath, before putting young Wales flanker hopeful Ollie Griffiths right back in his place on Boxing Day.
He suffered with Nigel Owens’ ruck interpretations against Scarlets on New Year’s Day, but was a standout defender, before rounding off the fixture set with an all-round performance away at Pau, 11 carries, 15 tackles and three turnovers all contributing to a match winning performance amongst under-par teammates.
Still just 28 years old, Sam is now in the prime of his rugby career, and as such can combine his undoubted natural ability with a world class reading of the game and that big match experience that many players would only dream of.
Of course there’s plenty of back row competition in Wales at the moment, with Justin Tipuric, Thomas Young, Taulupe Faletau, Ross Moriarty, Olly Cracknell and James King also included in the squad, while Ellis Jenkins, James Davies, Will Boyde and Ollie Griffiths all miss out.
It is important though to remember two things; not to get distracted by headline grabbers, and to balance your back row. Tipuric is an excellent player, but mainly puts together a good showreel of dynamic running and footballing ability, not offering even close to the breakdown work that Warburton is so exceptional at.
Young and Cracknell are in great form but have zero international experience, while Moriarty and Faletau’s inclusion comes under the balance section for me, as players they are just a touch similar in terms of basing their game around carrying power and defensive prowess.
For an example of how desperately Warburton’s powers on the floor are missed, just take a watch of the Wales v Australia game during the Autumn internationals. There was one turnover from the back row during the entire 80 minutes, and more importantly the Wallabies were allowed quick ball at every opportunity. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Sam’s dark arts ability.
As someone not often afraid to stick my head above the parapet, I would select Warburton on the blindside, Tipuric on the openside and Faletau at number eight. A balance of carrying, defensive capability and breakdown work, complimented by some match winning magic.
Anyway, this isn’t about me, it’s about Sam Warburton and what an excellent captain he’s been for a little over five years. A hero to a generation of youngsters, potentially the greatest ever of the 126 Welsh captains there have been, and just an all-round top bloke.
Although I’m sure he will be gutted not to be Wales captain anymore, it’s now time for him to concentrate on himself, and prove to everyone just why he’s not only one of the best ever captains, but one of the top Welsh players of all time.
Warburton may not be captain anymore, but there’s plenty more years of top quality flanker play to come, and long may they continue for Cardiff and Wales! Sam our captain is now just Super Sam.