Lions captain Sam Warburton is ready to step up for the second Test against the All Blacks
A couple of weeks back, Sam Warburton was talking to the media and explaining that all back-rowers have one particular skill that stands out – and it’s his skill that the British & Irish Lions will need at the Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday night.
“When I play well and I’m match fit, I’m aggressive in the tackle and I’ll contribute a handful of good carries. You also become a lineout option and, more importantly, there is the matter of turnovers,” said Warburton. “I always say to young back-rowers that if you want to become a top back-row player you’ve also got to be a specialist at something. You do everything but you’ve got to bring a specialist element. My specialist element is the contact area.”
The Lions were overwhelmed at the breakdown by the All Blacks in the first Test in Auckland, Aaron Smith able to get his forwards over the gain-line with quick ball from the ruck. Brodie Retallick feasted on that quick ball, his long limbs making ground close to the contact area.
At times the Lions were far too passive at the breakdown, allowing New Zealand to dictate the speed at which they played. If the tourists are to have any chance of drawing level in the series, they need to slow down the All Blacks’ ball and speed up their own.
And that’s where Warburton comes in. For while Sean O’Brien is famed for his ball-carrying and Taulupe Faletau for his soft hands and high work-rate, it is the captain who is known for his turnover ability. It’s not always flashy but when Warburton is at his best he can be a right nuisance at that breakdown area, which is what the Lions desperately need.
As Warren Gatland said: “He’s as good as any player in world rugby in terms of getting on the ball and creating turnovers, penalties or slowing the ball down. We’ve got to be more effective at the breakdown. The All Blacks were able to get go-forward and quick ball.”
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Warburton realises the scale of the challenge that awaits in the second Test and knows the team as a whole need to match their opponents physically, which they didn’t do last weekend.
“We all accept it that it’s probably the first game on tour that we were beaten in the battle at the breakdown from a physicality point of view,” he said. “We’ve accepted that, but that’s just going to fuel the fire for this Saturday. In rugby it’s very much a case of 99 times out of 100 the more physical team wins. People might not like to hear that, but it’s the truth.
“Being physical doesn’t men beating people up, it means your scrum is dominant, your lineout maul 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.”
Warburton believes the inclusion of Maro Itoje in the starting line-up can also help the Lions in terms of that battle on the floor and he is looking forward to playing alongside O’Brien too. “It’s the first time I’ve started a game with Sean O’Brien. I’ve played against him many times and I’ve been in the same Lions squad as him twice, but I’ve never had the privilege of playing with him. He’s somebody who I regard as one of the best sevens I’ve played against, so I’m looking forward to that partnership.”
Discipline is another key factor for the Lions – they conceded 11 penalties to New Zealand’s six in the first Test – and must be tightened up, otherwise they are simply allowing the All Blacks to gain a foothold in terms of territory and/or points on the board. Warburton says any issues during the game will be raised with the referee by him, avoiding the situation last week when Jaco Peyper was irked that a handful of Lions players kept complaining to him.
Warburton has been pleasantly surprised by how relaxed players are in the lead up to this game but knows that everyone is motivated to deliver a victory and keep the series alive.
“It’s definitely the biggest challenge of my career so far. It’s the one team I haven’t beaten in world rugby. 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.
“We know it’s all or nothing now. We’ve got one chance. It’s like knockout rugby and hopefully that brings the best out of the guys. They are used to that pressure.
“When you have been physically outplayed, which we were on Saturday, that does hurt you as a playing group. The boys are looking to put that right on Saturday.”
New Zealand v British & Irish Lions, 7.35pm (8.35am UK & Ireland), Westpac Stadium, Wellington, Live on Sky Sports and TalkSport
New Zealand: Irsael Dagg; Waisake Naholo, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Rieko Ioane; Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith; Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane, Kieran Read (capt).
Replacements: Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Ardie Savea, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden, Ngani Laumape.
Lions: Liam Williams; Anthony Watson, Jonathan Davies, Owen Farrell, Elliot Daly; Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Tadhg Furlong, Maro Itoje, Alun Wyn Jones, Sam Warburton (capt), Sean O’Brien, Taulupe Faletau.
Replacements: Ken Owens, Jack McGrath, Kyle Sinckler, Courtney Lawes, CJ Stander, Rhys Webb, Ben Te’o, Jack Nowell.