Sam Warburton delighted to win battle of two magnificent sevens
THE notion of Wales being populated by some three million selectors for the national rugby union side has been well established — though few quandaries have gripped the armchair juries quite like the one at openside flanker.
Sam Warburton, Grand Slam-winning captain of Wales and beast of the breakdown, stands in one corner, while in the other is Justin Tipuric, the outrageously talented Osprey whose scintillating form has seen him usurp his international skipper of late.
They are two of the best opensides in Europe, but Wales have found it difficult making room for both men in their side.
There has been a clamour from pundits and supporters to do so and, when the latter stages of recent matches have become disjointed with a raft of replacements, the two have occasionally found themselves in the same back row.
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But, despite toying with the idea of moving either Warburton or Tipuric to the less familiar role of blindside flanker, Wales have tended to choose one instead of the other.
Warburton began this Six Nations campaign as captain and first-choice seven, but an injury in the opening defeat to Ireland gave Tipuric the chance to start in France on the second weekend.
The Osprey took full advantage of his opportunity and kept his place for the following match in Italy — despite Warburton’s return to fitness — and it seemed Tipuric might have gained the upper hand both in terms of playing for Wales and, later this year, the British Lions.
The pendulum swung again this week, however, and Warburton has been restored to the side to face Scotland on Saturday — albeit with Ryan Jones retaining the captaincy.
“I was just delighted to be starting,” Warburton says.
“Ryan has done a great job over the last two weeks and I don’t see any need to change the team dynamics.
“It’s obviously worked for us over the last couple of weekends but Rob (Howley) has said I can still have an input. It’s not just Ryan on his own, he needs other guys.
“Ryan is the best captain I’ve played under so I have no qualms with him leading the side. He has a wealth of experience and tactically he’s very clued up.
“He’s been around a lot longer than a lot of the players and when it comes to tactical decisions, he reads referees well, has a good relationship with a lot of them in the way he talks to them and is a very good motivator.”
Wales interim head coach Howley suggested Warburton might thrive without the captaincy, with the Blues man able to focus purely on his own performance.
“You want to keep the captaincy. It’s a great honour to have but the positive is I can help Ryan and still concentrate on myself,” Warburton adds.
“In a strange way it was nice to be on that edge when it comes to selection and not knowing what will happen. That’s what pushes you in training.”
Tipuric’s excellence appears to have spurred Warburton on, and the benefit of this duel for Wales is that they have two supremely skilled and motivated players from which to choose.
Howley believes they are “the best two sevens in the Six Nations”, and their performances to date make his argument a convincing one.
“It’s nice to hear that,” Warburton says. “I would agree with Rob — I think Justin is one of the best opensides in the British Isles as well.
“I think he is an excellent player. He offers something none of the other sevens in the northern hemisphere offer.
"Attacking-wise he is very skilful and very gifted; defensively is where I am probably a little bit stronger. Rob said in selection it was because he wanted more physicality at the breakdown so I guess that is something I slightly edge Justin on.
“But then again Justin is very sound defensively too so it must have been a very tight call.”