Captain Warburton fighting fit

Mon, 22 May 2017 20:39

INJURY UPDATE: Sam Warburton boosted the British and Irish Lions, declaring himself fit and ready to captain them on June's daunting tour of New Zealand.

The trip includes a three-Test series with the world champions.

The 28-year-old Welsh back row forward - who coach Warren Gatland named as skipper after his successful captaincy in the series win over Australia four years ago - said he had fully recovered from a knee injury that laid him low in early April.

"I am fully fit, which is good," said Warburton, speaking at the Lions training base in Kildare, Ireland.

"Last week in the camp in Wales I was pretty much doing everything apart from just the last little bit of contact stuff.

"But today [Monday] I trained fully. We did full contact, and I was absolutely fine. That's all the boxes ticked, and now I can crack on."

Warburton, who is only the second player to captain the Lions twice - the other being England's 2003 World Cup-winning skipper Martin Johnson (1997/2001), said he was saddened that England star No.8 Billy Vunipola would not be able to tour - having been ruled out with a shoulder injury on Sunday.

"Billy was one of the guys I was really looking forward to playing with, who I hadn't played alongside before," said 76-times capped Warburton.

"He has been a massive player for Saracens.

"It is a big loss for us, but [with] James [Haskell] coming in - I think only Rory Best and Alun Wyn Jones have got more caps than him in the squad - means we are very lucky.

"He is a player who I think will have a massive impact on this tour.

"He [Vunipola] will be gutted, but he is young enough - he could perhaps go on another two Lions tours. I am sure he will be back, and in four years' time he will be red-hot for the Lions."

Warburton, who was relieved of the captaincy of the national side for the Six Nations after a loss of form, says that despite no Lions side having won in New Zealand save the 1971 vintage he was licking his lips at the challenge.

The first of the three Tests is on June 24 at Eden Park - a veritable fortress for the All Blacks where they have won 36 successive Tests including the 2011 World Cup and suffered their last defeat there in 1995.

"All the boys are on a similar wavelength - we've all been in the rugby environment for a number of years," said Warburton, who was sent off in the 2011 World Cup semifinal against France played at Eden Park.

"If you asked me in my career which Lions tour could I pick to go on out of any of them, if I could pick one, I would pick New Zealand, because it's New Zealand. I personally can't wait."

* Meanwhile Gatland said Haskell will bring a wealth of varied talents to the Lions touring party.

With 75 caps to his name - Haskell is now the third most experienced international in the 41-man squad that will take on the All Blacks next month.

Having also spent time with the Highlanders in Super Rugby back in 2012 his experience could prove vital on tour.

And Gatland - who coached the versatile Haskell at Wasps back in the early 2000s - knows what sort of a character he has joining the party.

"James covers all positions in the back row, he has played No.6, No.7 and No.8," he said.

"We could have looked at another No.8, but we have [Taulupe] Faletau and [Christian] Stander and we know [Ross] Moriarty can go across.

"Haskell gives us that flexibility, and he has had experience both touring and playing in New Zealand and that experience of playing and living in the South Island in Otago, Dunedin, is reasonably significant. It was certainly one of the factors.

"I rang [Haskell] and he rang back, I just said" 'Are you fit?' He said: '100 percent. I will just carry the bags if need be'.

"That is kind of person he is, he does bring personality to squad, and with his experience he is a really positive addition.

"Particularly for a guy that, if you had the conversation with, and you said maybe at the moment you are not going to be starting maybe not potentially involved in the Tests he would understand that.

"But knowing him from a number of years ago, he is the kind of character that he will work his way into fighting for a spot at some stage. It's a great opportunity and I am delighted for him."

Saracens No 8 Vunipola had been managing a shoulder problem for a number of months in the build-up to the Tour but in the end the 24-year-old felt he would be not be able to produce his best on Tour.

And Gatland - who initially tried to talk the England international into changing his mind - fully respected the England star's decision.

"With the pressures of a Tour in New Zealand, he was not feeling 100 percent fit, and that he was not able to give 100 percent to the cause," he added.

"You have to respect that decision.

"He has to be in right mental frame, he made that decision and I was not going to push him to change his mind."

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