As he looked around the room, it sunk in for Warburton just what sort of company he was keeping. Across the table was Willie John McBride, the slayer of the Springboks in 1974, John Dawes, the only Lions captain to have won a series in New Zealand three years previously…legends had morphed into dinner companions. He was a member of the most exclusive club in British and Irish rugby and the keeper of a very special flame.
Yet Warburton deliberately cut off Warren Gatland when he rang to offer him the chance to emulate Martin Johnson as a two-time Lions captain a week ago.
The rumour mill may have been linking him strongly with the role but he had thought that giving up the Wales captaincy for the Six Nations would point the Lions coach elsewhere. So when he saw the name ‘Gats’ flash up on his phone in a supermarket car park, he thought he was victim of a hoax by his Cardiff Blues team-mates.
“I was at the Blues that day and they’d all been asking if I was going to be captain for weeks. I thought one of the boys had gone on my contacts and changed their name to Gats. They always do it,” said Warburton. “So when it rang as Gats and I answered and I didn’t hear anything, I just hung up because I thought it was Tom James in Merthyr messing around.
“It rang again and I heard Gats’ Kiwi accent and I thought, ‘Oh shhhh, this is it’.”
Sam Warburton thought the call from Gatland was a hoax from his team-mates
One apology later and the job was his again – and with it arguably the toughest assignment in rugby history.
“It was a no-brainer – I obviously said yes straight away,” he said. “Because I’ve been playing well I feel a lot more comfortable about taking on the captaincy whereas I didn’t quite feel in that place back in January prior to the Six Nations. Now I’m in a good place from a form perspective the captaincy comes a lot easier to me.
“I’m a lot more relaxed this time around than I was four years ago too because I half know what to expect. I know what is expected off the field as well as on it from a captaincy point of view and I’m not too worried about that. I’m just thrilled with the honour of doing it twice.”
Warburton, like the man who took over the Wales captaincy Alun Wyn Jones, should be fit and raring to go with something to spare by the departure date at the end of May. He could well join those squad members whose domestic obligations have finished for a four-day camp in Wales a fortnight beforehand.
The problem for Gatland is the number who will be missing from that and the following week’s get-together in Ireland because of the refusal of the Premiership and Pro12 clubs to move their finals to accommodate the Lions some breathing space.
British & Irish Lions squad for 2017 New Zealand tour Wed, April 19, 2017
Express Sport runs through the confirmed Lions squad for the 2017 tour to New Zealand
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Express Sport runs through the 37-man Lions squad ahead of the New Zealand tour
He admitted yesterday his selection for the first game against the New Zealand Barbarians would be driven not by who he wants to pick but by who is not involved the weekend before they fly.
“It’s incredibly challenging that we arrive in New Zealand on the Wednesday and the first game is on the Saturday. You’re looking at the players that you have got available to you and are trying to prepare them for the first match,” said Gatland.
In one sense the Lions will be chronically underprepared for what awaits them, but as a Kiwi Gatland wants to ensure they are ready for the all-embracing nature of a tour to New Zealand. He has drawn up a list of films for his coaching staff to watch to get under the skin of the place and understand the sense of humour.
“In 2011 at the World Cup, teams rocked up there not prepared culturally for what’s going to happen,” he said.
“On the first Sunday, we’ve got a welcome in Waitangi and we’ll accept some Maori challenges where they speak and they sing. We will reply. Someone will speak in Irish and will sing, someone will speak in Welsh and will sing. I don’t think the two Scots will be able to speak Gaelic, but maybe they might be able to do that.”
Sam Warburton is now only the second player to captain two Lions tours
So Gatland wants talkers and singers but above all, he wants warriors. If there is a DNA strand he searched for in picking his 41, it was a never-say-die gene that will enable these Lions to believe it is possible to beat the All Blacks in their own backyard despite all the handicaps.
“As coaches, you’re trying to deliver that message sometimes when you’re playing the All Blacks about confidence and self-belief. You’re not too sure when you get that glazed look from the players if they honestly believe that,” said Gatland.
“To see some of those world-class players be human, make some mistakes, show some frailties when Ireland beat them in Chicago in November gives you that self-belief and confidence.”
Leading from the front again will be Warburton – and he is already dreaming of what might be this summer.
“It is going to be the hardest tour but you don’t go there thinking, ‘We could lose ‘x’ amount of games’, you think, ‘Imagine if we win’. That’s the nugget that’s hanging there,” said Warburton.