Sam Warburton admitted that turning down the Wales captaincy before the Six Nations convinced him that he would no longer be in the running to lead the British and Irish Lions to New Zealand this summer.
The 28-year-old will become just the second player to captain the Lions for a second time in the 129-year history of the side, following in the footsteps of England’s Martin Johnson in 1997 and 2001.
After being named captain of Warren Gatland’s 41-man squad, questions were immediately put to Warburton of whether there was more pressure on him because not many rugby players get the chance to lead the prestigious side twice during their careers.
“I'm a lot more relaxed this time around than I was four years ago because I half know what to expect,” said Warburton. “I know what is expected off the field as well as on it from a captaincy point of view. I'm not too worried about that, I'm just thrilled with the honour of doing it twice. I never thought I would be [picked again]. I genuinely didn't think I'd be a front runner for it because I thought it was going to be one of the captains from the home nations.”
Warburton stood down as Wales captain in the weeks before the Six Nations, instead choosing to focus on his form and handing the responsibility on to Alun Wyn Jones, the man who stood in for the flanker when he missed the third Test against Australia on the 2013 Lions tour.
Wales may have finished fifth in the Six Nations, but Warburton rediscovered his form and starred in all five of their matches, not least the near miss against England in Cardiff. With Gatland taking the full season to focus on the Lions, Rob Howley took charge of the side and deployed Warburton at blindside flanker rather than openside, and Warburton came out of the championship with his standing in the Lions squad elevated from possible tourist to Test starter.
Part of that is why he now finds himself relaxed amid questions over his suitability of taking on the captaincy for a second time, with the Cardiff Blues back-row insisting he would not have taken on the burden if he was still facing questions over his form.
“When I talked it through with my wife, my parents and my agent, they said 'That means you’re going to be out of the running for the Lions captaincy.' I just said: 'That's not the point. I just want to get back playing well for Wales.’
“I didn’t really look any further forward than that. That was never a motivation of mine...if I drop it now [the Welsh captaincy] then this could work out for me. I was just thinking I need to get back to playing as well as I can. I was always desperate to come on the tour. I'm extremely motivated by the Lions but I didn't really see the captaincy coming.”
He added: “That's why the phone call was surprising but it was a no-brainer – I obviously said yes straight away. Because I'm playing well I feel a lot more comfortable about taking on the captaincy whereas I didn't quite feel in that place back in January prior to the Six Nations. Now I'm in a good place from a form perspective the captaincy comes a lot easier to me.”