SAM Warburton will make his debut as British and Irish Lions captain tomorrow with every intention to “aim for the stars”.
Warburton, the first Welshman named as tour skipper since Phil Bennett 36 years ago, takes charge for the Suncorp Stadium appointment with Queensland Reds.
Having missed opening victories over the Barbarians and Western Force while a swollen knee settled down, he is now raring to go.
“Andy Irvine, our tour manager, set the bar high for us and said there’s never been a Lions tour where they have won every match,” Warburton said.
“I love that. You’ve got to aim for the stars, so that will be the goal. It might sound a bit disrespectful saying ‘go through undefeated’, but I remember an old PE teacher told me if you aim much higher than you initially would have, even if you still fall short you will have achieved more than you might have initially thought.
“Australia are a top-class side, and I have found that out the hard way over the last few years. It is just a goal – you have got to aim for it.”
The flanker watched from the sidelines as the Lions ran riot against the Barbarians and Western Force, scoring a total of 128 points and 17 tries. And the competition for back-row places remains intense, especially as Warburton is now entering the selection mix. His fellow Welsh international openside Justin Tipuric starred against the Barbarians, then Sean O’Brien delivered an outstanding display as the Force were crushed, so Warburton is under no illusions.
“Every player was told that they were going to get a start. Others have been waiting just like me,” he added. “I have been in this position in the Six Nations when you’ve got to sit out a couple of games. I am pretty used to that.
“The back row was always going to be one of the strongest positions. I first thought ‘flipping heck, that’s strong, look who is not there – Chris Robshaw, Stephen Ferris, if fit, Kelly Brown’. So it was always going to be a tough ask to play for the Lions in the back row.
“I definitely have to fight as hard as anyone. I was honest with Warren [Lions head coach Warren Gatland] and said what I don’t like about captaincy is you don’t want to become complacent and know you’ve got a starting place. I like going to team meetings when they announce the squad to the boys.
“You want to have a surprise like everyone else and not know whether you are picked and go to bed the night before wondering if you are going to play. I like those feelings. Those feelings are what drive you in training to be a better player.
“I think I am a good competitor who is always striving to get better. I would never sit back and relax, never think the Test spot would be assured.”
If the Lions are to topple Australia and win a first Test series since 1997, then it would see Warburton enjoy some welcome success at the Wallabies’ expense. Wales lost to them four times last year, in addition to a 2011 World Cup play-off defeat but Warburton has not succumbed to having an inferiority complex against them – far from it.
“In 2012, we played them four times and lost three of those games by a whisker,” he said. “I like to think we can learn from those experiences, and then throw into the mix Scotland, Ireland and England, the best of those countries, that has now tipped the scales in our favour. I am always optimistic and extremely confident.
“A lot of people complicate captaincy and ask me funny questions about it, but I’ve always just prioritised performance. I have a few things that I swear by as a captain – having a positive attitude, developing as a player and building up relationships, being professional and doing my job on the pitch.
“If I can tick those four boxes then I’ve done my job.”