x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A young head to lead an old rugby country

Sam Warburton, the Wales flanker, will captain his country only two years after making his debut.

Sam Warburton is one of the Rugby World Cup's more unlikely captains.

The 22-year-old openside flanker only made his debut for Wales against the United States in 2009 and initially seemed to be only a temporary replacement for the veteran Martyn Williams - a man who Warren Gatland, the coach, regarded so highly that he persuaded him to rescind his international retirement.

Williams was lauded for his role in Wales' 2008 Six Nations Grand Slam but Warburton's sparkling form since that 2009 game in Chicago means that he, and not his experienced colleague, is heading to New Zealand.

He is Wales' youngest captain since the 1970s, yet Williams considered him a good choice: "We always knew how good a player he was going to be."

Williams was omitted from the World Cup squad announced days after he had earned his 99th international appearance in a warm-up win over Argentina, losing his spot to Warburton.

"It is great for him and luckily we get on really well," said Williams. "He has been outstanding, particularly over the last 18 months."

Warburton's ascent to the position owes much to circumstance as well as talent.

Gatland stripped Ryan Jones of the captaincy in November, furious at the No 8 for conceding a last-minute penalty that allowed Fiji to force an embarrassing 16-16 draw in Cardiff, and leave Wales winless in a six-match span for the first time in seven years.

Matthew Rees took over as the captain but the Scarlets hooker has been ruled out of the World Cup because of neck surgery, leaving a gap for Warburton to fill.

When he took to the field against the Barbarians in June, Warburton became the second youngest man ever to lead Wales, Gareth Edwards, the scrum-half who became a legend of 1970s rugby, made his debut as captain aged 20 in 1968.

Warburton has led Wales only three times in 13 starts going into his country's World Cup opener against South Africa in Wellington on Sunday. That match against the defending champions is followed by Pool D encounters with Samoa, Namibia and Fiji.

Wales lost Warburton's first game as captain 31-28 despite leading the Barbarians 28-24 in the last minute, but the flanker said he and his team learnt a tough lesson in time for the World Cup.

"It was gutting against the Barbarians that we didn't just keep the ball for that last minute in play," he said. "It's something we wanted to do, and for one reason and another we didn't keep it tight. That's a mistake that I've learnt from and I definitely won't make again."


Five hopefuls to watch out for

Sam Warburton (Wales)

May have to break his habit of not talking to people in the dressing room before matches, seeing as the 22-year-old flanker, pictured, is now the Wales captain. He has a better chance than his former schoolmate, Gareth Bale, the Tottenham footballer, of success at a World Cup.

Seilala Mapusua (Samoa)

Mapusua went to the same school as Jonah Lomu in Auckland and won international titles with New Zealand at junior level. The call never came from the All Blacks, but he has still managed to carve out an impressive reputation for himself for London Irish and Samoa.

Jamie Heaslip (Ireland)

The gifted No 8 has a point to prove in New Zealand. When Ireland toured there last summer, he was sent off and then banned for five weeks for kneeing Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, in the head. He may find he is still a marked man among local supporters.

Juan Manuel Leguizamon (Argentina)

The industrious No 8 was part of the Argentine side who, surprisingly, finished third in France last time around. Many of Argentina’s golden generation of players from then have moved on, and Leguizamon will have to be at his best if they are to repeat that feat.

Keith Earls (Ireland)

Was a British Lion within three years of playing in Ireland’s Under 19 side at the 2006 World Championship in Dubai. The Lions coach, Sir Ian McGeechan, knows a player when he sees one, and Earls could be a game breaker for the Irish in New Zealand.