By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
SAM WARBURTON recently said to me that he was content being a quiet member of the Wales squad, that he wasn’t quite ready to be shouting orders at the more senior members around him.
In a couple of months things have changed dramatically for the openside flanker as he’s had to take on more vocal responsibility as Wales captain for their last three matches. And with Matthew Rees now a serious injury doubt for the World Cup, he could be fulfilling that leadership role in New Zealand too.
While Wales will struggle to find an adequate replacement for Rees in the middle of the front row, they have someone more than capable of taking on the captaincy mantle, as he proved by winning Man of the Match in the 19-9 win over England in Cardiff.
Warren Gatland said of his captain’s performance: “Sam was absolutely outstanding. That defensive effort at the breakdown stopped England getting momentum.”
So what do we know about the Welsh back-rower? Here are five reasons why Warburton’s proving such a hit…
1. Learning from the master
Warburton has learnt his trade at Cardiff Blues under the tutelage on one of the greatest opensides of the professional era, Martyn Williams. While he may end up denying his mentor a 100th Wales cap, Warburton himself has mastered the same snaffling skills at the breakdown and provides his team with plenty of turnover ball.
2. Gym won’t fix it
As a youngster, Warburton used to spend a lot of time in the gym trying to get bigger and stronger – but he might well have been doing himself more damage. Since he’s cut down on the gym work he’s also cut down on the number of injuries he’s picked up. It may be coincidence, but it seems the less strain he puts on his body in the gym, the more rewards he’s reaping on the pitch.
As well as his scavenging abilities at the contact area, Warburton is also a solid tackler, a decent lineout option and offers himself as a powerful ball-carrier too, as his try against Italy showed.
4. Leading from the front
While he admits to being hugely nervous before a Test in which he is captain, he seems to thrive on those nerves. He was undoubtedly one of Wales best players during this year’s Six Nations and has improved yet further during the last three games. He’s been to the fore of Wales’ game plan and hasn’t been found wanting in terms of his decision making.
5. Rounded individual
While he’s not someone to let his hair down out on the town – he prefers a protein shake to a few beers – he keeps himself occupied off the pitch. He plays the drums, likes walking the family’s dogs and is even looking into property development. He certainly knows how to switch off to rugby.