The most remarkable thing about two of the opensides featuring this weekend, Sam Warburton and David Pocock, is their age. Born less than six months apart, with yours truly coming in the middle, the two flankers have dominated this Rugby World Cup. Whilst Pocock has been around for a couple of years now on the world stage, correctly winning acclaim from all parts for his exceptional skills at the breakdown, Warburton is very much a new global force.
Few in the southern hemisphere would have known the name pre-tournament, but all that has changed now. He is less experienced than any other captain in the semi-finals, although James Horwill is not far ahead of him. But even Horwill had the experience of winning the Tri-Nations and defeating the All Blacks as captain before the World Cup began. Warburton has had to adapt to leading his country game by game, which makes his achievement of 7 wins in 9 matches all the more impressive. Flankers have always been inspirational in Rugby World Cups; Michael Jones, Francois Pienaar, Neil Back and Juan Smith all integral to title winning sides. Warburton is part of that mould.
When Martyn Williams was displaced by Warburton first in the Cardiff side and then in the national side, the general attitude from neutrals around the game was to lament that Williams may never reach the 100 caps for his country he seemed so close to. In a few months, that has been dispelled and replaced by glowing admiration for his young replacement. The way he has combined with Dan Lydiate, also 23, and Toby Faletau, 20, shows just how far the youthful Welsh players have come.
It’s not all about his leadership though. Warburton’s physicality is up there with the best forwards in the world, with his tackle count so far at the Rugby World Cup sitting at an impressive 13.8 per game, the highest in the Welsh squad. People speak about leading from the front as setting an example by making a physical impact with few words. Warburton shatters that concept with his ability to both dominate physically and communicate.
His abstinence since the Six Nations has been an example to all rugby players of the dedication required to go that extra yard and get the body into perfect condition. Is that kind of sacrifice necessary for everyone? Of course not, but that doesn’t stop it being an impressive example of the lengths he is willing to go to be the best he can. That kind of sacrifice is reminiscent of a certain Jonny Wilkinson, and we all know how well he did.
In the same year at school as Gareth Bale, Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, the way both young men have risen to the top of their respective sports is remarkable. When it comes to national success though, Bale will never get as close as Warburton finds himself right now.
In the longterm, Warburton has potentially a decade of rugby ahead of him on the international stage. If Wales young side continue to grow as impressively as they have done thus far, he will no doubt be at the heart of it. Take Wales two steps further though in this competition, and he will reach the pantheon of Welsh sporting immortality at just 23. But if that doesn’t happen this weekend, there is still time for Warburton to become one of the greats. He has both the talent, and the temperament.
by Ben Coles