Captain Warburton needs to shake off history

LIAM NAPIER IN CARDIFF
Last updated 05:00 24/11/2012
Sam Warburton
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SMILING NOW: Sam Warburton can't afford to carry his or his side's past performances into a test against the world champions.

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Imagine being the bloke who, supposedly, cost your team a place in the World Cup final.

For Wales, that man was their captain, Sam Warburton.

Just 23 at the time, Warburton was still young and impressionable. After a standout tournament he ran on to Eden Park for the semifinal against an underperforming French outfit.

Blood was pumping. Emotions were high. This was easily the biggest match of his short career. He was determined to lead from the front; set the tone.

Just 18 minutes into the match, Wales' second youngest captain was sent off for a tip tackle on French wing Vincent Clerc.

Never mind what happened for the following 62 minutes, Warburton was perceived to have lost the match for Wales. As far as the Welsh public were concerned, their captain had failed them.

On returning home, Warburton was subjected to suffocating criticism from all over his country.

New Zealand has similar foundations when it comes to rugby - Graham Henry was only half joking when he suggested fleeing the country had the All Blacks failed for a second time at the World Cup on his watch last year.

According to Kiwi-born Welsh coach Warren Gatland, Wales is worse in this regard.

"It's a fishbowl here," he explains. "New Zealand is very regional. You don't tend to know what's happening politically in other regions. Here everyone knows each other's business because it's such a fishbowl. Whatever happens in Cardiff they know in Swansea within hours.

"It's challenging at times. The people here are very passionate and knowledgeable. They are very opinionated. They often disagree with what we've got to say."

It's no wonder Warburton's form has dipped considerably since the World Cup.

Dropping your captain is a big call, but that's exactly what happened to the openside flanker in last week's shock defeat to Samoa.

There is a school of thought that Warburton has never recovered from the ignominy of that tackle. And when you hear him talk about attempting to escape the widespread condemnation after five straight losses, it quickly becomes clear how hard it would have been for him to shed the burden of last year's incident inside the fishbowl.

In the past two weeks the abuse directed at Warburton was so strong his sister closed her Twitter account.

"After the two defeats [to Argentina and Samoa] I didn't look at my Twitter account for a few days. I didn't look at the press, I didn't watch television," he said. "I just spent time with family to reflect and get away from rugby."

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This week Warburton can't afford to carry a chip on his shoulder, or suffer from a lack of confidence. He has been recalled to mark rested All Blacks captain Richie McCaw for a second time.

"You're not going to be successful for your entire career. There's always going to be ups and downs. It's how you manage that," he said.

- Stuff

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