LONDON (Reuters) - Sam Warburton was in a supermarket car park, waiting for his wife to bring back the bread and milk, when British and Irish Lions coach Warren Gatland called to ask how he would feel about captaining the side again.
If Gatland felt the need to allow the flanker some wriggle room, it was not just down to injury concerns but because he knew from coaching Wales that he would never put personal ambition first.
“I wanted to see his response and he just said ‘outstanding, I’d love it, it would be awesome’. And that was enough for me,” Gatland told reporters after the announcement of his 41-man squad for the New Zealand tour on Wednesday.
“I think his greatest quality is that it’s not about Sam Warburton, it’s about the team and putting the team first.”
Warburton, who stood down from the Wales captaincy this year, joins England’s Martin Johnson as the only men to have led the Lions twice. He also skippered them on the successful 2013 tour of Australia.
Gatland, unusually for the Lions, indicated that his captain’s place in the team was not a given.
“I think he’ll be under no doubt that he knows his form’s got to be good enough to be selected in the test series and if Justin Tipuric or Sean O’Brien are playing better than him...then we make that selection from a coach’s point of view,” he said.
Warburton recognised that captaining the tour would be the “toughest thing I’ve done” but he also felt more relaxed than four years ago.
That said, he would have said no had he felt he was not playing well enough.
“If I felt I’d only scraped into the squad and they asked me to captain, I would have said I was not in the right frame of mind to do it,” he said.
“Because now I do feel I am playing well and I feel very confident about my game, that’s why I said yes. It’s all about how I am playing. The captains I really respect, empty the tank for the boys they are playing with. And I feel I can do that.”
Defence coach Andy Farrell praised Warburton’s calm authority.
”He did a great job in 2013.“ he said. ”He’s a ‘doer’ who leads from the front. People like his attitude. When he speaks, which isn’t too often, he’s accurate, to the point and has a good feel for the group.
“There is a lot of respect from the players as there’s not a lot of noise coming out of his mouth all the time.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mitch Phillips