Warren Gatland’s Lions' captain has started just twice since damaging a knee nine weeks ago while on duty for Cardiff Blues against Ulster
The good news is Sam Warburton improved during the second half of the Lions’ clash with the Highlanders, the bad news is they lost and the skipper looks in need of more game time.
Warren Gatland’s main man has started just once since injuring a knee nine weeks ago while on duty for Cardiff Blues against Ulster.
Captain Sam damaged an ankle during the Lions’ tour opener with the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians and, typically – and which is a measure of the man – he has publicly stated he will tell coach Gatland if he doesn’t feel his form or fitness is good enough to face the All Blacks in the opening Test on June 24.
Warburton did so last autumn, advising Wales caretaker coach Rob Howley he wasn’t ready to face Australia following another lay-off and instead appearing for the Blues that weekend.
The situation is different this time with Warburton having trained for a number of weeks and it’s unlikely the Tests will be as fast as the clash with Super Rugby outfit Highlanders, which took place on one of the fastest pitches in world rugby under the perspex roof at the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin.
Warburton appeared to be ‘treading water’ but he wasn’t the only one whose lungs were burning and legs aching as they filled with lactic acid because of the blistering pace the game was played.
Warburton lasted until the 68th minute but what was most pleasing was his involvement in the game grew, with his best work coming in the second half.
I’m not just talking about his try, when he picked up following a sustained passage of play and bundled opposition scrum-half Kayne Hammington out of his way to power over from close-range, but the increasing influence he was starting to exert around the fringes with his ability to hold up opponents.
He also began to make an impact at the breakdown. That had been easier said than done earlier in proceedings because the ball placement, support work and speed of the recycling from the Highlanders was technically superb.
It meant the Lions rarely had a chance of getting their hands on the ball to slow it down without the fear of giving away a penalty.
So Warburton was somewhat of a fringe figure in the first half with the game bypassing him to a degree, as he understandly found it a struggle to adjust to how quickly things were happening as the Highlanders constantly changed the point of attack and looked to stretch the tourists.
But the 28-year-old seemed to grow in confidence after striking for his try, making tackles in quick succession and disrupting the ball at a breakdown by driving hard at a ruck.
He won a turnover just before being replaced by Justin Tipuric, with his match stats reading showing he made five runs, eight metres, beat one defender, conceded and made one turnover and completed five tackles.
Blindside flanker James Haskell and No.8 CJ Stander each made double the number of tackles, while the latter also made 41m from 20 carries.
Warburton had said: “I’ve always said I think I need a couple of games to get up and running.
“I’ve learned from experience that it takes me at least two games and then the third game I’ll probably be playing some good rugby, but 'Gats' knew that.”
And that’s the very reason, in my opinion, why Warburton should start Saturday’s ‘unofficial Test’ with New Zealand Maori in Rotorua.
There’s even more riding on that encounter in the wake of the 22-20 loss to the Highlanders with it being an opportunity to see if a back-row of Warburton, Taulupe Faletau and Sean O’Brien or Peter O’Mahony can work together.
The balance of Haskell, who has been playing at openside for England, Stander and Warburton wasn’t quite right.
Facing the Maori, even if it’s for 50 or 60 minutes, will give the popular Warburton another opportunity to fine-tune his game before the first Test at Auckland’s Eden Park.
The fact of the matter is any of the Lions’ back-row contingent wouldn’t look out of place against the All Blacks.
But Warburton is the tour captain and is still favourite to play. Gatland should pick him against the Maoris and afterwards reach a decision on that vital opening Test.
The Lions cannot go into it with any player that’s undercooked. There were promising signs from Warburton in the second half at the Highlanders and he said he “felt better” for having the run-out, but I’d like to see if he can build on it from the start in what’s expected to be a physical and torrid clash with the Maori.
If his next rugby is against the All Blacks, I'd worry he won't be fully ready for what will undoubtedly be a ferocious encounter.