Gladiator Warburton puts red card behind him

Gladiator Warburton puts red card behind him

A distraught Warburton was controversially sent off for a first-half tip-tackle on France’s Vincent Clerc as the valiant Welsh were edged out 9-8 in Auckland, missing out on a final against hosts New Zealand.

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“We definitely want to go one step further,” Warburton said last month. “All the players get asked questions about the last World Cup and it’s always the ‘what if?’ question.

“No one really knows what would have happened. It’s impossible to say.”

The openside flanker is the epitome of a rugby gladiator on the pitch while conducting himself with dignity off it, and Wales will need his leadership if they are to progress out of the toughest of groups.

Drawn with heavyweights England and Australia, Welsh hopes have taken a knock with tournament-ending injuries sustained by backs Leigh Halfpenny, Rhys Webb and Jonathan Davies.

Wales, however, can point to a strong pack led by Warburton as reason for optimism particularly with the burly captain packing down at the back of the scrum with blindside Dan Lydiate and number eight Toby Faletau, a trio up there with the best in international rugby.

A fine tackler and a turnover specialist, the faith put in Warburton by Wales coach Warren Gatland extended to the British and Irish Lions, with the New Zealander choosing his man to lead the tour of Australia in 2013.

The Lions’ 2-1 triumph was the pinnacle of Warburton’s career so far and, at 26, the son of a firefighter, often described as an old head on young shoulders, is probably still to reach his peak in the game.

The respect Gatland has for Warburton is more than reciprocated by his skipper.

“I doubt I would be in the position I would be in if it wasn’t for Warren,” Warburton said.

“Another coach probably wouldn’t have put his faith in a 22-year-old kid who only had 14 or 15 caps when he picked me as captain (in 2011). He stuck by me.”

(Editing by Ed Osmond, Neville Dalton)