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Family man Warburton teams up with O'Brien after taking over from POM

The 28-year-old Lions captain has taken over from Peter O’Mahony for this weekend.

Murray Kinsella reports from Wellington

SAM WARBURTON GOT a new phone just before the Lions tour started.

A new number, only given out to the other players, his immediate family and his closest friends.

You see, last time Warburton was Lions captain he spent weeks running around the place looking to get jerseys signed for the hundreds of people who were texting him with requests.

British and Irish Lions during the Haka  Alun Wyn Jones Mako Vunipola and George Kruis Leigh Halfpenny Elliot Daly and Sam Warburton Warburton will front up to the Lions as captain. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Older and wiser, he has shut himself off from the distractions this time around – a sign of his sheer focus on success in New Zealand.

“I thought, ‘Right, this is going to be two or three of the most important months of my career,’” says Warburton. “I just had to do whatever it takes to be as best prepared as possible. That was just my own personal decision from past experiences.

“I am a little bit anal in my preparations. I’ve just completely shut myself off from the outside world for a couple of months.”

The 28-year-old appears to be genuinely and blissfully unaware of what’s been going on outside the Lions’ bubble, and he would likely feel a fair bit of pressure if he was.

Warren Gatland’s decision to start his tour captain tomorrow against the All Blacks has raised a few eyebrows, particularly in Ireland given the dropping of first Test captain and Munster man Peter O’Mahony.

Warburton – an openside by trade – wears the number six shirt in a back row also including Sean O’Brien and Taulupe Faletau, and that trio are tasked with helping to shut down an ultra-clinical All Blacks team as the Lions look to get back into this series.

The Welsh captain feels that this is the biggest game of his career and certainly anyone in Wellington can feel the absolute enormity of his Test match.

Though he has shut it all out up until now, Warburton did dip into the outside atmosphere for half an hour this week.

“I went out for the first time in four weeks yesterday,” says Warburton. “I have a couple of mates over who were in a bar, so I popped in at about 8pm after having some food with my brother and my dad and one of my best mates.

Sam Warburton Warburton takes over from Peter O'Mahony. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“It was the least I could do for them having spent all that money coming halfway across the world to watch me play. I have got about 10 former school-mates over here who are on a heavy session so I will have to stay away from them for the next two days!

“I just went in to say hello to them for half an hour and it was absolutely crazy. That’s the first time I have experienced what the fans are like, what they are experiencing. It was great fun and we have hardly seen that.

“You are in this little bubble and you don’t realise how big it is and how big it’s perceived from the outside world really.

“You are on the laptops making sure you know the moves. You don’t normally have time to think about that stuff. People don’t believe that and can’t imagine it, but you genuinely don’t realise what’s going on outside.”

While some supporters and pundits have doubts around Warburton’s match sharpness and fitness for this second Test, there can be little doubt that the diligent back row has done his homework.

Top of the list for the Lions this weekend is bringing a far greater physicality to the game, having been beaten in that area by the All Blacks last time out.

And Warburton is being handed responsibility for leading the charge at the breakdown as the tourists look to slow the Kiwis down.

“In rugby it’s very much a case of 99 times out of 100, the more physical team wins,” says Warburton. “People might not like to hear that, but it is the truth. Being physical doesn’t men beating people up – it means your scrum is dominant, your lineout maul is dominant, your breakdown is dominant and that’s the majority of the game really apart from the kicking side. That has to improve this weekend.

“I think the guys that have been brought in can add a bit of strength to that. Maro [Itoje]’s good on the floor as well, a great lineout athlete and I’m looking forward to seeing him go.

“For me personally, it’s the first time I’ve started a game with Sean O’Brien. I’ve played against him many times and I’ve been in the same Lions squad as him twice but I’ve never had the privilege of playing with him really.

Sam Warburton Warburton is a lineout option for the Lions. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“He’s somebody who I regard as one of the best sevens I’ve played against, so I’m looking forward to that partnership.”

After his 30-minute foray into the madness, Warburton has kept the head down for the remainder of this week as he prepares to lead the Lions out against the best team in the world.

The phone has been a little busier than usual, however, as the Welshman keeps in contact with his daughter, Anna Victoria, who was born last year.

For now, she hasn’t a clue what’s going on in New Zealand but Warburton hopes to make some history that she can take pride in down the line.

“She has just started walking which is a little bit disappointing from my perspective, missing that.

“But she doesn’t know what dad’s doing. I’ve been FaceTiming her most days. My wife has been telling her, but she doesn’t know what’s going on. I’ll have to show her a couple of programmes when she’s older and see if she believes me.”

- This article was updated at 2.02pm to correct ‘him’ to ‘his’ in the second paragraph.

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