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O'Brien's performance puts pressure on returning captain Warburton

‘I know there’s every chance that I might not even get involved in that first Test.’

Murray Kinsella reports from Dunedin

ASK SAM WARBURTON to name some of the best openside flankers in the world and he will point to Sean O’Brien and Justin Tipuric, among others.

The Lions captain appreciates how great a challenge he is facing on this tour and, having recovered from an ankle strain to be named in the starting XV for Tuesday’s clash with the Highlanders, the Welshman understands that he is under pressure to perform.

Sam Warburton Warburton is back from injury for Tuesday's clash with the Highlanders. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Tipuric started the tour well, but it was the display delivered by O’Brien against the Crusaders on Saturday that really turned the heat up.

Lions boss Warren Gatland offered O’Brien major praise after that victory and he stated again on Sunday that in terms of the first Test, several players had “put their hands up” for selection.

“There’s no doubt about that, but that’s the challenge,” said Gatland. “The guys who are playing on Tuesday night are pretty aware of that.”

Warburton had only just regained fitness after a knee injury when he travelled to New Zealand with the Lions, so to suffer an ankle injury just 15 minutes into the tour opener against the Provincial Barbarians sent alarm bells ringing in his head.

“It was about 15 minutes into the game. I was thinking, ‘Oh no, this can’t be happening.’ Over the next five minutes it was sore but I’ve had a few bumps now and I tend to know when it’s serious and I have to come off.”

Warburton battled on into the second half, then spent a few days icing the ankle heavily, using the Lions’ Game Ready cold therapy compression system during the night time to ensure that he was healing as quickly as possible.

He is now ready to demonstrate his qualities to Gatland once again, pointing out how badly he needs to get game time under his belt in order to perform.

Warburton hopes his ankle holds firm and allows him to deliver, but he is also realistic enough to admit that he may yet miss out on selection for the first Test – even though he is the tour captain.

Sean O'Brien with David Havili and Richie Mo’unga O'Brien has put the pressure on Warburton. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I’ve received this role as tour captain and I know there’s every chance that I might not even get involved in that first Test because there’s every other player,” said Warburton.

“I see it as I’m tour captain, and if I’ve made the Test then that would be a bonus for me, but I’ve said there’s three Tests to get selected for so it’s not the be all and end all with the first one.

“I’ll be honest with Gats and Gats will be honest with me – if I play Tuesday and I still feel I’m a bit undercut, then go into that first Test and I might not be ready for that first Test.

“Maybe that would be the situation, or maybe I could have a blinder on Tuesday and feel absolutely fine and see how it goes really. I’ll be perfectly honest with Warren and if I feel I need more games then I’ll tell him if I don’t feel ready, and if I don’t need any then I’ll obviously let him know that with a good performance.”

For Warburton, showing Gatland that he is ready to build into the Test series as the first-choice openside flanker will involve a heavy focus on the breakdown.

The Cardiff Blues back row wants to bring a rounded performance on Tuesday, but for himself and the Lions turning up the breakdown impact is key.

“When I play well and I am match fit, I am aggressive in the tackle,” said Warburton. “I’ll contribute a handful of good carries, you become a lineout option, and more importantly – which hasn’t really been a factor in the last three games – is turnovers.

“We haven’t seen a whole lot of turnovers. Always practice what you preach – I always say to young back rowers, ‘If you want to become a top back row player, you’ve got to be a specialist at something.’

Sam warburton Warburton wants to make a big breakdown impact. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

“Whether that’s a six who’s a specialist ball-carrier… you’ve got to be able to do everything, but you’ve got to bring a specialist element and I guess my one specialist element is the contact area.

“I guess I have to deliver in that area on Tuesday. That’s my role of expertise. You want to have a well-rounded game but I think that is one area, as the Lions, we can step up: turnovers in the contact area.”

O’Brien has thrown his gauntlet at Warburton’s feet and now the Lions captain must show that he has the kind of weaponry that Gatland cannot do without come Test time.

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Murray Kinsella

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