The British and Irish Lions secured an historic win over New Zealand in the second test on Saturday, winning 21-24 with records tumbling as the All Blacks lost at home for the first time since 2009, for the first time in Wellington since 2003, had a player sent off for the first time in 40 years, and lost to the Lions for only the third time in the same time frame.
It wasn’t a performance that will be looked back on for it’s high quality, with errors and ill-discipline a problem throughout, but it will go down as one of the most enthralling test matches in the professional era, with a monumental defensive effort and clinical attack when required seeing the Lions over the line.
As a Cardiff Blues fan my eyes were more often than not drawn to Sam Warburton, as the sole member of the squad continuing a long line of Cardiff history with the Lions, representing the club, city and region in the red shirt of the tourists.
Tour captain Warburton has had a tricky time so far. A knee injury picked up playing for the Blues in Ulster back in April meant he was not match fit when the Lions set off for New Zealand, and that was further exacerbated by a minor sprained ankle in the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians match.
A start against the Highlanders, and substitute appearance against the Maori All Blacks, was not deemed enough to see him get into test match condition and he was benched for the first test last week, coming on with 25 minutes to go. He struggled to make any real impact though due to the interpretations of Jaco Peyper.
In spite of that, however, he was selected to start and captain the side in the second test. As a response to that there was a murmur of discontent, with supporters suggesting he hadn’t done enough to warrant a test start, and some even saying they don’t believe he was good enough, or fit enough, to be taken on the tour at all.
To an extent I can see where those people are going wrong. Watching Warburton on the TV, or even in the ground sometimes, does not come close to giving the viewer the full spectrum of his play. You need to watch him almost exclusively to understand what he brings to the team.
Warburton won’t be the top scorer or the go-to ball carrier in a team, so doesn’t grab headlines that way, nor is he known for making huge eye-catching hits. What separates him from other flankers is his ability to perform the ‘dark arts’ as they are often called. That is work at the breakdown that can’t be seen to the casual observer, but is massively effective.
In Saturday’s second test he was on excellent form. By my calculations there were 75 defensive breakdowns during the game, and Sam was present as the tackler 10 times, competing for the ball 19 times, and stood at either first or second man a whopping 29 times. He was also able to recover loose balls on two occasions.
Those are stats that underline workrate, discipline and a reading of the game that seems to largely go unnoticed by many rugby fans, but is massively appreciated by those who understand what Warburton brings to the game.
Don’t take my word for how effective Warburton can be without it being obvious to many rugby fan though, listen to David Flatman on his recent ‘Flats and Shanks’ podcast with Tom Shanklin, where he talked about how after one game Sam was panned by supporters for his performance, but the opposition thought he had a really good game.
This also defines his leadership style, leading by example, leaving the shouting to the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Owen Farrell. Like a silent assassin, quiet but extremely effective.
Sam’s game also relies on guys like Jones, as well as Maro Itoje and Sean O’Brien, causing havoc with their aggressive defence that allows him to steal in and do what he does best on the floor. That was one of the most impressive aspects of Saturday, the performance of the loose forwards, taking on a high quality back row and the best lock pairing in the World.
If the Lions can repeat that on Saturday it will give them as good a chance as they can get of pulling off a famous series win, offering a platform for the backs to attack from and suffocating New Zealand into another low scoring performance.
Until then, watch the second test back and focus on Sam Warburton, then understand why he’s so crucial to every team he plays in. Personally, I’ll be praying he doesn’t get injured!