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All hail the Lions King

Welsh wizard Warburton thrilled to captain touring side and can’t wait to get off to a winning start in Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 10:10pm

It was not quite as dramatic as a princess walking up a rickety ladder and coming down a queen overnight, but when Sam Warburton flew down the staircase he had walked up just minutes before at his parents' home in Cardiff two Sundays ago, he had turned from commoner to king - of the British & Irish Lions.

Warburton, who was named as Lions captain for the tour of Hong Kong and Australia on Tuesday, revealed he had stayed true to the trust placed in him by head coach Warren Gatland to keep his captaincy a secret until the official announcement of the 37-man squad to all and sundry bar three people "closest to me", his fiancée Rachel and his parents.

"I heard the phone ring upstairs and I knew it could be a call from Warren. I ran upstairs, but missed it. I called back and was told the amazing news. It is an unbelievable honour. I was told to keep it secret, which I did for nine to 10 days and was the hardest thing I did - I have a lot of angry friends now - but I had to tell those people closest to me, who I knew I could trust," Warburton told the Sunday Morning Post.

Rachel was the first to know, followed by his parents, that he would be the youngest captain to lead the Lions in 58 years - Warburton will be 24 years and 244 days old when he leads the Lions out to meet the Barbarians at Hong Kong Stadium on June 1 - the previous youngest being Robin Thompson of Ireland in 1955 (24 years 48 days).

Warburton becomes the 28th captain of the Lions and only the fourth Welshman to lead the composite side which also includes players from England, Ireland and Scotland. He has massive footsteps to follow, but has already thrown down the gauntlet, saying he wants the class of 2013 to become known as the 100 per cent Lions, which means winning all 10 matches on tour, including three tests against the Wallabies.

"I was having a chat with manager Andy Irvine and we were talking of past tours. Andy told me there was only one Lions side who came close to winning all their games on tour, losing only one match. I'm the ultimate optimist and I want to go out and win every match," said the openside flanker. "Undoubtedly, it will be tough. But this is the standard we want to reach. I have been through some pretty tough times in the past, the last World Cup campaign with Wales was one, but I believe this will be the toughest challenge I will face and I'm looking forward to it with relish."

Warburton has extensive and impressive captaincy credentials, having led the Wales Under-20s at the IRB Junior World Championships, the senior side at the 2011 Rugby World Cup and Six Nations grand slam honours in 2012. He has won 38 caps for Wales and will be the first Cardiff Blues player to lead the Lions.

Already he is being likened to Martin Johnson, England's World Cup-winning captain in 2003 who was the last captain to lead a successful Lions side, defeating South Africa in 1997.

Johnson first played for the Lions on the 1993 tour of New Zealand when he was a last-minute injury replacement, but then forced himself into the test line-up. Four years down the road he was first choice for captaincy, much like Warburton this time, and he led the storied touring side to a 2-1 series win over the Springboks.

Warburton chuckles over the telephone line when asked how he feels to be mentioned in the same breath as Johnson.

"It is very flattering, but I don't think I can be compared to him unless the test series is won. But I see myself somewhat as a similar person to him. I'm not much of a loudmouth captain and I believe in leading from the front and I will rely on the experience of others around me."

He was referring to former Lions captains Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll, who were in charge in 2009 and 2005, respectively. It will be the third and fourth tours, respectively, for the Irish duo and Warburton is aware that every bit of help he can squeeze out from this pair will help the cause as the Lions seek to win their first series in 16 years.

Only three Welshmen have been picked to lead the Lions in the past - Arthur Harding in 1908, John Dawes in 1971 and Phil Bennett in 1977 (Gareth Thomas inherited the honour when O'Driscoll was injured in 2005) - and Warburton is proud to carry the flag. Although young, he is not new to the role, having first led Wales in June 2011, becoming the principality's second youngest captain after Lions legend Gareth Edwards, when he led his country against the Barbarians.

Warburton held on to the captain's armband for the World Cup after Matthew Rees was ruled out, and took Wales to the last four. He was red-carded in the opening minutes against France for a tip-tackle. If that was a low-point in his career, he is hoping the next few months will lead to a memorable highlight.

Having set a lofty goal of winning all the matches on tour, the opener in Hong Kong will take on added importance. Warburton, who has never set foot in this city, is hoping to get off to a blinder.

"It is all about momentum. With Wales I have realised the importance of winning the opening few games in a Six Nations campaign. I want to do the same with the Lions and winning our first game in Hong Kong will be crucial," Warburton said. "If we win that, the momentum starts building, there will be smiles on the faces of the players and we will be on our way."

Warburton knows the immense challenge that awaits him having experienced it firsthand as part of the Wales team who lost six times to Australia in the past 18 months. If one group who had played together struggled against the Wallabies, can a disparate team do better? He admits one of the biggest challenges would be how soon it would take for this unrelated group to blend together as one fighting unit. The number count reads 15 Welshmen, 10 Englishmen, nine Irishmen and three Scots.

"Obviously, there is a lot of quality around, but the key will be how soon we can gel as a unit. I was talking to Neil Jenkins and Rob Howley, both part of the last Lions squad to win a series, and they say the sooner we all are able to bond the better.

"It's not going to be easy. The tour party comes together for the first time on May 13, but then a number of players will not be available due to demands from their clubs. I think we will have just one week of preparation together before we fly out for the first game. This makes the Hong Kong match even more crucial."

Sixty-one years ago, a young princess Elizabeth walked up a rickety ladder at Treetops in Kenya one night. In the morning, she came down a queen having heard the news that her father, George VI, had died. A fortnight ago, Warburton walked up the staircase at his parent's home and took a call, which turned him into a Lion King. British rugby fans will hope his reign is just as imperious.

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