Sam Warburton joins Pantheon of captains at special dinner ahead of All Blacks tour

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THE magnitude of the honour truly hit home to Sam Warburton over dinner in a west London hotel on Tuesday night.

There, the giant Welshman sat round the table with each of the other 11 living Lions captains.

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British Lions captain Sam Warburton with coach Warren Gatland

Warburton has been fired up after meeting former Lions captains for dinner

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Warburton has been fired up after meeting former Lions captains for dinner

And when they spoke about taking on the All Blacks, he noticed the fire in their eyes and recognised a special bond.

There were legends like Willie John McBride, Phil Bennett, Bill Beaumont, Gavin Hastings, Paul O’Connell and Martin Johnson – the only previous man to have led the British & Irish Lions on two tours.

And Warburton knew instantly that this meal would become a tradition – once every four years when the touring party is announced – to welcome a new captain into this select brotherhood and hand down such immense experience.

The Cardiff Blues flanker, who had relinquished the Wales captaincy in January, said: “It started off formally but soon the shackles were off and we talked rugby, touring…


Before Warburton, Martin Johnson was the only man to captain the Lions twice

PA:Press Association

Before Warburton, Martin Johnson was the only man to captain the Lions twice

“Whatever the age gap, you’ve all got that one thing in common. Even the guys who toured in the 1960s and 70s, you could see it in their eyes when they were talking about playing the All Blacks, you could see that competitive streak was still in them and you knew that they would love to roll back the years and put on their boots again.

“It was the first time the dinner has happened and everybody said ‘yes’ straight away – we’re going to do it every four years to welcome the new captain in.

“You know that every four years you are going to have an evening in the company of these legends and heroes. It was surreal to be welcomed by players I had watched as a kid. I’ll look forward to that night every four years now.

Willie John McBride was also at the dinner – the Irishman has more Lions caps than anyone else

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Willie John McBride was also at the dinner – the Irishman has more Lions caps than anyone else

“They are really positive guys. They know New Zealand is the hardest tour but it is seen as a great opportunity rather than a tough fixture list because if you can come out of the other end successful, that’s going to be amazing.

“I was thinking ‘God it would be great to beat the All Blacks.”

Coach Warren Gatland, who left out Dylan Hartley – the third successive England captain to suffer such a fate – and enraged most of Scotland, selected an enlarged 41-man party to ensure the Lions can adapt their playing style on this epic quest.

The New Zealander also spoke of the need to understand Kiwi culture in order to be successful in his native land – recommending books, films and Maori song.

For Warburton, team bonding will be crucial – as he tries to unite 16 Englishmen, 12 Welshmen, 11 Irishmen and two Scots.

Although he doesn’t quite want to recreate the wicked humour in the Cardiff Blues dressing-room, which left him assuming he was the victim of a wind-up when Gatland called last week to bestow the captaincy on him for a second time.

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Warburton explained: “I was in a supermarket car park and I thought it was a wind-up.

“The Blues had been asked me for weeks whether I was captain and I honestly didn’t know. I’d been in the gym and my phone was unlocked and they were pretending Gats was calling.

“They always change you contacts if you’re phone is unlocked – they’ll change their own name to Gat’s – it was Tom James, the winger, who’d been winding me up.

“So when it rang and it said ‘Gats’ I just hung up – and when he rang again and I heard Gats’ Kiwi accent I thought ‘oh s**t this is it’. I said ‘sorry I thought it was TJ messing around’.

“Some of the boys are terrible. One time there was a young player who could have won his first cap – they used Siri and said ‘text Dad, I’ve just made the Welsh team’ – that text went to his dad but he obviously didn’t get picked. The boys have no standards. There are some pretty evil pranks.”

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When he led the triumphant tour to Australia in 2013, a drinking session in Hong Kong helped forge bonds – but that is a luxury which this summer’s gruelling schedule will not allow.

Yet Warburton, 28, said: “I think the best thing that bonds players is going through games together. If there’s a back-row player I have never played with before, after I have played 80 minutes with him and you are battered and bruised, then you have a lot more respect for each other – so that is the advantage of having so many games before the Tests. It brings you tighter.

“But you have to get the ‘off the field’ right. I always think with teams I’ve been involved in that a happy camp, more often than not, is going to be a successful camp.

“Last time it was really easy to bond because the guys are so thrilled to be there. Everyone is on cloud nine because there is nothing like a Lions tour.”

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