Enjoy every moment and play every match as if it were your last – that’s the advice of former Wales Under 20 captain Sam Warburton to his young countrymen.
Warburton, who has gone on to win 15 senior caps since leading his country to the semi finals on home turf in 2008, believes the IRB Junior World Championship can be a stepping stone to higher honours or a career milestone in itself for any young rugby player.
“You don’t know if you are going to end up playing another junior or even a senior World Cup again,” he said.
“Enjoy it and take the opportunity in every game you can and play as hard as you can because it could be the last game playing for Wales, whether it is age group or senior level.
“Treat every game as if it is your last and just enjoy the occasion.”
The Cardiff Blues flanker has made a rapid rise up the senior ranks, culminating in his elevation to the captaincy for the thriller against the Barbarians in Cardiff on Saturday, when the hosts were overhauled with two late tries to lose 31-28.
But the youngest Welsh skipper since Gareth Edwards in 1968 is mindful of how crucial Junior World Championship 2008 was to his development.
“It was my first exposure to sides like New Zealand, South Africa and Australia and I have ended up playing against guys like Quade Cooper and David Pocock who were in the same competition, and Zac Guildford.
“From a Welsh perspective, guys like Leigh Halfpenny, Jon Davies, Dan Biggar, Ryan Bevington, Josh Turnbull – loads of us have gone on to get senior honours so it is a great developmental tool.”
Those tools have served him well in the three years since he led his side to the last four at JWC 2008, where they were beaten 31-6 by eventual winners New Zealand in Newport.
“The game is a lot more difficult when you are playing in the Junior World Cup because you are playing the southern hemisphere sides that are a lot quicker than what you are used to playing at age grade back home.
“You play against different styles and you learn more because you are coming up against some diverse sides and styles you have never played against.
“It was my first opportunity leading Wales, so it was quite intense. Players are exposed to media and stuff like that and it helps develop players, not just on the field but off it as well.”
Warburton made his senior debut against the USA on their summer tour of North American in 2009, albeit as something of a relucant replacement.
“I remember being very nervous. Ryan Jones went off injured after about 15 minutes and I had to come off the bench. I had only just had my pre match energizer, which was still swilling around in my stomach so I didn’t really want to come on at that time, but as soon as you cross the line then you sort of go into game mode.”
How then did he feel when he learned he would be leading the side out against the Barbarians.
“I was stunned to be honest. I didn’t know if it was something I would ever achieve, never mind at 22 years old.
[Coach Warren] Gatland asked me and I couldn’t find my tongue, and when I did, I told him I would, and I just remember laughing down the phone because I didn’t think it would happen.”
While his first cap and being named captain for the Baa-baas game rank among the highlights of an already impressive CV, he also cites the comeback victory over Scotland at Murrayfield in the 2010 Six Nations.
“Shane [Williams] scored that memorable try under the posts in the last minute,” he recalled. “I remember running back to the halfway line and I was talking to one of the players and all I could see was his mouth moving because there was so much noise in the stadium. It was an incredible atmosphere, so that one stands out as well.”
Warburton is excited at the prospect of mixing it with the very best at Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand later this year, but is not taking his place for granted.
“There are still players like Ryan Jones who haven’t been to a World Cup and he’s on 55 caps or whatever he’s on,” he said.
“It is unfortunate that some players can come round to these big competitions and get injured. Touch wood, I picked up a jaw injury right before we went to New Zealand last summer, so I haven’t been thinking about it too much, but hopefully I can come through the season and the summer unscathed, play well and be fit and hopefully that will be enough to get me on the plane.”
The Barbarians game marked the start of Wales’ preparations in earnest for New Zealand, with matches against England and Argentina to come in August before the final squad is named.
“The England games always have a bit of extra spice and being before the World Cup it is really important to get those wins.
“Argentina are one of the up-and-coming nations, so we are testing ourselves against really good teams. Hopefully we can go into the World Cup and know where we are at.”
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