Sam Warburton: The 'brute force' recruitment needed by Leinster
Sam Warburton has an ambition he would love TNT Sports to help him fulfill. The retired Wales skipper is a Tottenham Hotspur fan when it comes to football and guess where the final of the 2023/24 Investec Champions Cup is scheduled for next May? The home of the North London Premier League club.
“For my sins,” confirmed Warburton when RugbyPass asked him about his alleged Spurs-supporting allegiance. “Selfishly, I’m hoping that TNT, this might be the first time they hear of it, particularly for my broadcasting career in the five, six years I have been doing it, that would be a career highlight – being able to work at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. I’ve been there to watch them, but to be pitch side and actually working would be phenomenal, so I can’t wait for that.”
Given that he is now also a board member at Cardiff, Warburton would like nothing better than to see his rugby region – the only Welsh participants in the 24-team Champions Cup – enjoy a decent run. Unfortunately, he doesn’t envisage any rapid upswing in fortunes.
Welsh rugby has brutally struggled in Europe’s premier tournament for quite some time. Just twice in the past 12 seasons have they had business-end representation, Cardiff reaching the 2012 quarter-finals and Scarlets the 2018 semi-finals before those runs were abruptly halted by Dublin hammerings from the eventual champions Leinster.
They are fortunate to have a single team involved at all this season as Cardiff secured qualification as the top club Welsh despite finishing 11th in the URC, but this safety net of all five countries in that league being guaranteed one Champions Cup participant each no longer exists with the URC’s top eight finishers in 2023/24 qualifying next term regardless of country of origin.
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As it currently stands in the league, no Welsh team will make the 2024/25 Champions Cup as Ospreys are 11th, Cardiff 12th, Scarlets 13th and Dragons 16th, but Warburton is hoping for long-term improvement. “That’s the goal. It’s not about survival now, it’s what are the steps that have to be taken now so that realistically in three to five years in Europe you can start throwing your weight around and getting into knockouts by earning it.
“It’s going to take time. Budgets have been slashed, they are going to go down again next year which is why I say short-term, no (there won’t be European progress). The budget is going to go down again to £4.5million where you are looking at French clubs who are in double figures looking at some of their player budgets.
“Money talks in professional rugby, sadly. It talks. Even Leinster, they have got one of the best academies and have a good player budget and they still can’t win it. It shows you how many things you have got to get right.
“From a Welsh perspective, they are very far off right now but the goal has got to be how do you build a team, an infrastructure and success to be able to be competitive and realistically it’s probably five years away at least. That has got to be the goal for Cardiff to start working towards. If they can be competitive this campaign, not get blown away and stay at arm’s length (against Toulouse, Bath, Harlequins and Racing), that will be a success for them.”
Warburton was a one-club man during his playing career, but lack of success with Cardiff never convinced the 2013 and 2017 British and Irish Lions captain that he should leave and seek out glory elsewhere. “One year we got to the quarters and that was it,” he shrugged.
“I knew when I stayed at Cardiff I was going to sacrifice club success. It’s not being defeatist to Cardiff. We were a mid-table team in what is the URC now, we did win a Challenge Cup (2010) and they won a Challenge Cup again in 2018, so they were competitive there (in the second-tier tournament).
“But I knew because Wales were successful I managed to get that successful kind of kick out of playing for Wales and I did always feel a loyalty to Cardiff. For me, it wasn’t about just moving to a club and winning. I did have a look at going to Toulon in 2013. If that move went ahead I could be sitting here with three Champions Cup medals or whatever it was. But I was, ‘No, it’s more important for me to stay at my club’.
“That’s not one regret I have, the lack of club success because I enjoyed success at international level. I actually loved playing for my hometown club. That just meant more to me than moving away and winning something.
“I remember thinking to myself I’d much rather stay here and win one Challenge Cup than move to a club that I didn’t have a close association with or didn’t feel very affectionately about and win five. I’d much rather work very hard with my home club and win one, so that was a sacrifice I was willing to take.”
Warburton’s punditry in this weekend’s opening round will be focused on the games at Toulouse, Toulon and Racing, three French heavyweights who are respectively welcoming Cardiff, Exeter and Harlequins to their lair.
“It will be interesting to see how dominant the French teams are compared to what is happening over here in the home nations. I’m interested to see if there is a gulf at all. My first thought is there is going to be a very competitive contingent of Top 14 sides that we might struggle to compete with.”
His ‘we’ includes Leinster, the Irish province who have an away date on Sunday at La Rochelle, the French club they have narrowly lost the last two finals to. He is excited by what could unfold. “Leinster have always been phenomenal for the pool stages. Through the pool stages everyone looks at Leinster and goes, ‘Oh my goodness, nobody can live with them’.
“They always play phenomenal rugby in the pools but they come unstuck physically when they play a La Rochelle or, in years gone by, a Saracens. The only place you can question Leinster is physicality and the same question has come to the Ireland team as well. This will be fascinating to see.
“We know how good Leinster are going to be from an attacking perspective. They are great in defence but if La Rochelle just want to carry off nine and maul and play a kicking game – and you imagine they will be very astutely coached by Ronan O’Gara – that is the one big question mark that hangs over Leinster. We are going to find that out a lot earlier this year than in previous years gone by. That is what is fascinating about that game.”
Leinster now have Jacques Nienaber, the World Cup-winning Springboks head coach, on their managerial ticket and while Warburton can see this South African influence eventually making them better in the long-term, he suggested they need an on-field enforcer to turn final losses into victories.
“Fans won’t see a drastic change,” he figured about Nienaber. “It takes time to really groove your training drills, the training regime, the messages that you want to get across. You might see a five, 10 per cent difference in the first few weeks but to see real differences you are probably going to have to give it time. Look at Johann van Graan at Bath, it has taken a year so it takes a lot of time. I don’t think you are going to reinvent the wheel right now.
“You are just going to try and fit into some of the systems that are already in place and just tweak a couple of things… but what I think Leinster need to add is some brute force up front. That is probably what Leinster are missing when it comes to the Champions Cup. Someone like an RG Snyman, who looks like he could be going to Bath, that would be an amazing recruitment for someone like Leinster just to add someone of that ilk into their pack.
“We’ll see. For the Leinster fans’ sake, you don’t want to be detrimental to the development of young players but you feel a couple of bolstering players in that pack would be what they need. Your (Will) Skeltons, your RG Snymans, that kind of player just to stick in your front five to get you over the finish line.”
Switching to the English challenge, Warburton isn’t giving them a trophy chance. “The short answer is no. Saracens will be there or thereabouts. Bath will have a run. Harlequins look sharp but if they lose the first game up to Racing they will be chasing their tail straight away, so that is going to be a tough one for them. So not really.
“You might get some English clubs getting to the 16s and the quarters but when you get to the semi-finals it’s hard to look beyond Toulouse, La Rochelle, Racing. Even Toulon might have a decent run this year given their form in the Top 14 and they have rebuilt their squad and brought in some good players. It’s going to be hard to look beyond the French and potentially the Irish teams when we get to the semi-finals and beyond.”
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This season’s Champions Cup format is unique, not only with South African teams involved but also in having four groups of six. Clubs will play just four games and the old attraction of teams meeting for home and away head-to-heads has also been scrapped. “There are pros and cons,” reckoned Warburton.
“You don’t get the dead rubbers where if a team has lost the first couple and they go and play away in France, they put their second string out. If that is the benefit of having four rounds rather than six, I’d prefer having four rounds rather than six and then having a last 16 and the quarters because there is more jeopardy involved.
“It’s a better format from a number of games. Six pool games used to be too much for fans. There were always two poor standard pool games. At least there is something now on every single game. To have more consistency in the teams you are playing would maybe be one thing I would like to see.
“Like, if there was a home and away for example, but I haven’t got the brain to figure out how that could work. That would be the best of both if that was a possibility. It would be quite nice. I loved the tactical battle of playing someone a second time and you were trying to expose them. I really liked that challenge as a player. Playing them at home and away was very different and I did enjoy that.”
Warburton’s parting shot was the importance of the French to the credibility of the ever-changing tournament. “I played in Toulouse a few times around December and it’s Christmassy and really nice. To be fair, the French love Europe as well. They buy into Europe. That is the disappointment with the South African teams, you are not going to get that historical rivalry and don’t get as many travelling fans.
“You go to France and it’s just sell-outs and it’s bonkers. You don’t get that when you go to Cape Town, no offence, because you don’t have the same kind of heritage in the competition. Going to play in France in Europe, if you ever took the French away from this competition it would be a disaster. They provide so much from playing style to away fan travel experiences to sell-out crowds. They offer so much to the competition. They are brilliant.”