Sam Warburton will still captain Lions, Stuart Barnes says
Last Updated: 12/04/17 7:27am
Stuart Barnes believes that Sam Warburton will still captain the British and Irish Lions, despite facing six weeks out with a knee injury.
The 28-year-old picked up a medial ligament strain during Cardiff Blues' 24-24 draw against Ulster and now faces a race against time to be fit for the upcoming tour to New Zealand.
Warburton, who has been heavily tipped to lead the Lions for the second time in his career, crossed for a try in the 23rd minute of the match in Belfast, but was forced off the field before the break.
The flanker now faces a tight deadline for fitness with the tour squad named on April 19, but Barnes fully expects the flanker to feature heavily in Gatland's plans.
"As is the case with injuries, the diagnosis and the reality aren't always the same. Sam Warburton is more likely to get an injury in the next six weeks when he plays for Cardiff than he is away from the action," Barnes told Sky Sports News HQ.
"He doesn't have a history of playing particularly often or particularly well for his club team, he's in the Lions contention as a player and captain because of what he achieved for Wales.
"From Gatland's perspective, what he has got to do now is gauge the degree of risk with the injury. It is not about when Warburton is fit to go, it is about the first Test - he has still probably got five or six weeks.
"He'd need two or three games, I reckon, before taking on the All Blacks, but if Gatland feels he's his man I think there is still enough of a leeway for him to pick him as captain.
"If a week before the tour he's still not right, [Gatland] can change his mind."
Gatland is aware of the abilities of Warburton as both captain and player due to their time together in the Welsh setup, and Warburton also skippered the 2013 series win over Australia. It is this history that Barnes believes will see the 74-cap international not only make this year's tour, but be named as the leader.
"Sam Warburton has now become everyone's favourite captain but it was not so long ago he was struggling to get in the Welsh team.
"He is favourite because Gatland has a history of liking him and Gatland knows he is a fine competitor, and he has always been Gatland's man over Alun Wyn Jones, who himself is off injured at the moment.
"If you're second-guessing Warren Gatland, I think the fact he has always stood by Warburton, always supported him in the face of some stern competition from Alun Wyn Jones, then I think he is likely to be named captain a week tomorrow."
Will Greenwood says the injury has not come at an ideal time, but believes Warburton will benefit from the break from rugby ahead of the trip to the home of the world champions.
"From a Lions perspective the Welsh faithful will be hoping against hope - and all the home nations will be hoping against hope - that he comes through it fine in 42 days' time," said Greenwood.
"Forty-two days from now takes you to May 23. The guys will fly out three or four days after that, the first game is on June 3, and the first Test is on June 24.
"The quality of play that Sam has produced over the past six months has been quite outstanding.
"Clearly Warren Gatland would prefer he was at a health spa for six weeks just resting up and was absolutely fully fit the whole time, but the blessing in disguise is this takes him out of full-level contact and rests him up.
"Mentally and psychologically he can put his feet up a little bit and prepare for the Lions tour, and spend a lot of time in the gym working on his aerobic, anaerobic and his core strength, so that when he hits New Zealand he will be in fine, fine form."
Greenwood says the call for Warburton to be captain is now in the balance, but is in no doubt that the Blues forward will be picked for the tour.
"I would be absolutely gobsmacked if he wasn't named in the squad to travel to New Zealand," said the three-time Lions tourist.
"He's hotly tipped by a lot of people to be captain, but it's a bit of a nerve-racking moment to name him as captain when you know he can't do anything for six weeks, so that might have an impact.
"But in terms of Sam's availability for New Zealand, I expect him to land in New Zealand 100 per cent fit, ready to take on the All Blacks."