Warburton wins fans at World Cup
Updated: October 03, 2011, 03:42
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WELLINGTON, New Zealand(AP) Wales flanker Sam Warburton will become the youngest man to captain his team in a Rugby World Cup quarterfinal when he leads it against Ireland on Saturday.
He faces that onerous task with the full support of his teammates, the growing admiration of fans - not just Welsh - and the enthusiastic endorsement of Wales defense coach Shaun Edwards.
Even before Wales had played a match at the tournament, coach Warren Gatland tipped Warburton as a player who would achieve stardom in a World Cup setting. Gatland said the 22-year-old flanker would be regarded by the end of the Cup as the equal of the best openside flankers in the game.
Edwards said on Monday that Warburton was already well on the way to achieving that objective: He had been measured against and proved himself in the same division as players such as Australia's David Pocock, New Zealand's Richie McCaw and South Africa's Heinrich Brussow.
"Somebody that doesn't know the first thing about rugby would understand that Sam is doing exceptionally well,'' Edwards said.
"His leadership for a 22-year-old is very mature. He's everything you want in a modern-day professional athlete: He's teetotal, he looks after his body and he's had a really good, strong injury-free run, which in the past he hasn't really had.''
Edwards said Warburton's career to date had been constrained by injuries - a plague shared among loose forwards - but he had been given the chance in New Zealand, free of injuries, to demonstrate his worth.
"I think this is probably his record number of consecutive games he's played,'' he said. "Like all players, particularly your better players which he obviously is, getting regular rugby is a massive part of finding your best form as a rugby player.''
Warburton faces a new battle on Saturday with Ireland counterpart Sean O'Brien, another of the new breed of fast and powerful flankers within the international game. Edwards sees it as one of the key individual contests within a close game.
"It's a small battle within a large war,'' he said. "They're different sorts of players.
"For Sam, obviously, one of his strengths is definitely on the floor which I think was proven against (Brussow), one of the best No. 7s in the world.
"He dominated the breakdowns in that game, did Sam. He got six turnovers. O'Brien is more of a power runner; a very, very explosive player who maybe in a year or so's time will be fighting for a touring place on the Lions.''
Ireland came into the World Cup on the back of four straight test defeats and changed the tournament when it beat Australia in pool play. Wales had been elevated by warmup wins over England and Argentina but it stumbled when it lost its first pool match to South Africa 17-16.
Edwards said both teams were still able to pick up momentum which could carry them beyond the quarterfinals.
"Before I came here I spoke to (former Scotland and British Lions coach) Ian McGeechan about coming to the Rugby World Cup and he said to me you can build momentum within a World Cup. I think both teams are doing that,'' Edwards said.
Wales demonstrated that momentum when it beat Fiji 66-0 in its final pool match but, as defense coach, Edwards took more pleasure from the fact Wales conceded no points, than the 66 points it scored.
"It's very unusual to get a zero nowadays in rugby,'' he said. "Basically, the fact is to get a zero you have to shoot out into a quite convincing first-half lead, otherwise people go for penalties.
"Obviously, Fiji had quite a number of penalties but because they were losing by 30-odd nil, it did them no good because to kick them would be like waving the white flag, wouldn't it?
"Fair play to them. They battled on to the end and did their best, but obviously our line held strong until the end of the game.''
Edwards said Wales' gameplan for the World Cups knockout rounds was simple.
"I think we'll play in a balanced way,'' he said. "When the opposition gets the ball we're going to defend as if our lives depend on it and if we get the ball at the right end of the pitch, at the right time, we'll play rugby.
"Let's hope tries are the deciding factor in the game but the reality is that often goalkicking plays a really big part in winning World Cups.
"If you look at the last few winners of the World Cup, they've always had a high-percentage goalkicker and I know that (Wales goalkicking coach) Neil Jenkins has been working unbelievably hard with all our kickers to make sure we're in the high percentage.''