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British & Irish Lions
Gatland backs Warburton to deliver
Tom Hamilton at the Lions squad announcement
April 30, 2013

British & Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland has backed Sam Warburton to do a "brilliant job" for the tourists after being confirmed as their captain for the summer's tour to Australia.

Lions: The winners and losers

England captain Chris Robshaw did not make the grade © Getty Images
  • Winners:
  • Sean Maitland - the Kiwi-born winger only made his Scotland bow earlier this year but he has done enough to see off the challenge of compatriot Tim Visser and Ireland's Simon Zebo - both widely tipped for selection.
  • Dylan Hartley - The Saints hooker may have lost his England place to Tom Youngs but Warren Gatland clearly still rates him - despite what he might have said in public in the past.
  • Jamie Heaslip - The Ireland No.8 has been well below his best for much of the season but offered a timely reminder of his class in Leinster's recent Challenge Cup semi-final triumph.
  • Richie Gray - The Scotland lock has struggled for form and fitness for much of the season and failed to hit his usual heights in the Six Nations but still claims a seat on the place.
  • Matt Stevens - The Saracens prop retired from international rugby last year but the Lions selectors have seen enough on the domestic stage to give him the nod with his versatility also a huge asset.
  • Losers:
  • Chris Robshaw - The England captain has been a consistent performer all season long and came agonisingly close to steering his side to a Six Nations Grand Slam. He is also a key cog in a Quins side that is challenging for honours once again but it is clearly not enough for some.
  • Rory Best - The Ireland hooker had already been pencilled into the Lions' Test XV by many but a drop in form during the Six Nations appears to have put paid to his tour chances.
  • Greig Laidlaw - The Scotland scrum-half was another tipped by countless pundits to lay claim to a place on tour given his form and ability to cover fly-half. But the Lions appear willing to take the risk.
  • Simon Zebo - The Ireland winger is clearly destined for a bright future - going by his fancy footwork in the Six Nations - but he suffers as a result of strength in depth when it comes to his position.
  • Danny Care - The England scrum-half has pushed compatriot Ben Youngs throughout this season but one will head to Australia while the other will have to settle for a tour to Argentina.

Warburton was the bookies' favourite heading into Tuesday's announcement but at one stage he was considered an outsider for the captaincy with his involvement in the tour also a doubt. Heading into the Six Nations he was named skipper for Wales' first match of the series against Ireland but injury ruled him out of their second game against France.

In Warburton's place Ryan Jones excelled, retaining the captaincy for the third and fourth matches. Come the title-decider against England, Jones was ruled out through injury but Warburton passed up the captaincy and Gethin Jenkins led the team out. Some deemed this to be Warburton struggling with the pressure of skippering his country, but Gatland dismissed these thoughts and has backed the young openside to deliver in Australia.

"He's someone that I worked with closely and I really respect the job he's done for Wales particularly as a young man, he's a young man with an old head on him," Gatland said. "But the job he did for Wales in 2011 and for the World Cup - you know people have tried to make a lot of this year. He was named captain for the first game of the Six Nations and was injured for the second game. Rob [Howley - Wales' interim coach] was always going to play Justin Tipuric in the third game against Italy and then bring back Sam for the last two games.

"One thing I've always admired about Sam was that if Sam was a selfish guy then he would have taken the captaincy back but it was about putting the team first and he felt that as Ryan Jones had gone such a good job, he wanted to come back and play himself. He's a quiet man, he leads from the front and I think he will do a brilliant job for the Lions in Hong Kong and Australia."

For Warburton, being named captain continues his rollercoaster year. He played in all of Wales' autumn internationals where his side suffered the ignominy of four straight losses but finished the 2013 Six Nations putting in a huge performance against England alongside Tipuric in Wales' back-row. He now hopes to continue in the same vein in Australia.

"I can't wait to do it," Warburton admitted. "It was a dream come true really and it's exactly the situation I want to be in. As a kid wanting to play for the Lions has been the ultimate. There's not enough time to worry about things, you just have to enjoy it and embrace the occasion. It'll be an amazing tour and you have the time of your life out there and I can't wait to experience that."

Warburton will now skipper a group of players including two former Lions captains - 2005's Brian O'Driscoll and 2009's Paul O'Connell. And he will look to utilise their experience in the same manner he did when he was first named Wales captain.

"A similar situation happened when I was 22," Warburton said. "Back then I only had 14 or 15 caps for Wales and I was alongside guys like Ryan Jones who had captained Wales on many occasions, as well as Stephen Jones and Shane Williams, and I was like 'flippin heck how can I captain these guys?'

"I had reservations about doing it back then but this time around I've learnt that rather than being worried about it, they are the first guys you go up to when things do go a bit tough and you lean on them.

"Playing for Wales now, we have a leadership group of five or six guys and fortunately those guys will be involved this time around. And the experienced players from the other nations will have a similar input and they will be pivotal in how we bond, how much we enjoy the tour and they will have a massive part to play. "

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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