Warburton reaps rewards after Wales captaincy call

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Many were bemused when Sam Warburton stepped down as Wales captain in January but three months on there can be no doubt what a shrewd decision that has proved to be.

Struggling with injuries and a loss of form, the Cardiff Blues flanker was battling to retain his place in the Wales back row for the Six Nations.

Warburton opted to relinquish the captaincy before the tournament, with Alun Wyn Jones replacing him.

The strain of leading his country a record 49 times was affecting the selfless Warburton's game and he realised the time was right to concentrate on returning to the peak of his powers.

Just a few months later he was introduced as the British and Irish Lions skipper for the tour of New Zealand.

"Performance has to be the number one priority", were his words as he explained why he would no longer have the honour of captaining his country.

Warburton's actions spoke louder than his words in the Six Nations, thriving on the freedom to focus on letting his ability do the talking for Rob Howley's men.

Howley stated after Warburton's reign came to an end: "The last six years, Sam has concentrated on being Wales captain, and maybe it's about being selfish and looking after Sam Warburton. It's time now that he just looks after himself."

The interim Wales coach employed Warburton at blindside flanker, with Justin Tipuric donning the number seven shirt, and the 28-year-old was given a new lease of life minus the captaincy.

He emerged as the favourite to lead the Lions out against the All Blacks in June and July, four years after having the honour in the series victory over Australia.

Gatland knows all about his qualities, which led him to appoint the Cardiff-born workhorse as Lions captain in Australia and raise eyebrows by making him skipper of Wales at the tender age of 22.

The New Zealander said his trusted lieutenant Warburton was "the natural choice" to take the role, having inspired the troops with great effect in Australia.

Looking after number one has certainly paid off for Warburton, who was in a supermarket car park when Gatland called to inform him that he will have much more than bread and milk to think about in the next few months.

Warburton's immediate aim is to get fully fit as he recovers from a knee injury, but he vowed that he will be ready for the monumental task of facing the world champions in their own backyard.

The popular Warburton's appointment ensures he will emulate a feat only England legend Martin Johnson has achieved, becoming the second man to have skippered the Lions on two tours.

It seems the penny must have dropped for the Welshman when he mulled over his future prior to the Six Nations and, fitness-permitting, he can look forward to having one of the biggest privileges in sport again.