Time to wave goodbye to Warburton?
Graham Jenkins
August 20, 2013
Is Sam Warburton destined to follow former class-mate Gareth Bale and opt for a big-money move to the continent? © Getty Images

Picture the scene. Two teenage school boys sitting at the back of a classroom in a Cardiff secondary school struggling to maintain their enthusiasm for a maths lesson while attempting to listen to music - maybe the Stereophonics or Jay-Z - via a cleverly concealed iPod.

Both would rather be elsewhere - preferably on a sports field where both have excelled - but are comforting themselves by casting their thoughts a little further into the future. One, so gifted at football he is made to play with his 'weaker' foot at school, imagines a day when he can emulate his hero - Manchester United winger Ryan Giggs - and rival the best players in the world.

The other, also a talented footballer but who has opted to concentrate his efforts on the oval ball game, ponders the possibility of experiencing a Six Nations clash at the Millennium Stadium from the pitch rather than the stands and following in the footsteps of countless players to have served a proud rugby nation with distinction.

A decade later, and those class-mates - Gareth Bale and Sam Warburton - have gone a long way to realising those dreams and their endeavour has brought with it success and opportunity. Both have now been presented with potentially career-defining moves that could cement their status as two of the finest sportsmen of their generation - and with them quandaries arguably more challenging than any algebra.

It would appear that Bale is destined for Spanish giants Real Madrid who hope to lure him from Premier League side Tottenham. The player has reportedly told team-mates his days at White Hart Lane are over - it appears it is just a matter of the clubs agreeing a deal.

Warburton's future is also the subject of intense debate with his contract with PRO12 side the Cardiff Blues up at the end of the season and fans should prepare for the worst - the flanker is surely poised to join the increasingly alarming yet inevitable exodus of the country's best rugby talent.

Lions skipper Sam Warburton leads the celebrations, Australia v British & Irish Lions, ANZ Stadium, Sydney, July 6, 2013
Sam Warburton led the Lions to their 2013 series triumph © Getty Images

The similarities between the two extend beyond their school days. Both reached this point in their careers following the most emphatic reminders of their skill and value. Bale's outstanding contribution to Spurs last season and his unbelievable consistency produced 29 goals - for club and country - and he was rewarded with the PFA Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards. Not to be completely outdone, Warburton shrugged off some poor form to help steer Wales to Six Nations glory before leading the British & Irish Lions to an historic series victory over Australia. It was only the Lions' second triumph in the professional era and their first in 16 years.

As a result their market value is at an all-time high and they are wanted men who have more leverage than they are ever likely to have again. Both claim to be happiest at home, but their fondness for familiarity is sure to be tested by the riches on offer and they would be fools not to cash in. The mind-boggling transfer market in football is a key factor in Bale's future with his club determined to maximise their return and ultimately they are in charge of his destiny thanks to their contract with the player.

Transfer fees are not so common in rugby and the sport is not plagued by endless speculation courtesy of a mind-numbing 'window' but that is not to say it is immune to such reports with countless column inches set to be dedicated to Warburton's possible options, and those of fellow Lions hero Leigh Halfpenny who finds himself in the same position, in the coming months.

With rugby players more likely to see out contracts before deciding on their next, more focus falls on the choice of the individual and emotion would appear to play more of a role in proceedings. Warburton's ties to the Blues and the Welsh capital are strong - it is home in more ways than one having developed as a player within the region's youth ranks and academy before making his regional bow in 2009. He has since emerged as a major part of Warren Gatland's plans and an accomplished skipper having taken on the Wales captaincy ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup that ended with a red card and bronze medal.

Injury could end his career in the blink of an eye, especially given his own warrior-like qualities and no-nonsense approach to the game

The Blues will no doubt table a new deal but such are the constraints on the region and Welsh rugby in general that that figure is highly unlikely to eclipse the offers that are sure to come from England, France and maybe beyond. The Blues, who have seen Jamie Roberts leave this summer, may want to keep both Warburton and Halfpenny but even with additional help from the Welsh Rugby Union they may struggle to retain the services of one of them - let alone both.

Any fears that a move outside the principality will jeopardise Warburton's international future are unfounded. If he is playing well enough then rest assured he will remain at the heart of Gatland's plans for the national side. And as his Lions and Wales team-mates Roberts and Dan Lydiate have shown, the move can be made with contractual agreements that ensure release for all training camps and internationals.

If Warburton were to make a similar move, it would begin at the start of the epic 2014-15 season that would stretch all the way through to the World Cup in a little over two years' time. Gatland and his coaches would be denied the chance to keep a close eye on the player but such guarantees as those secured by Roberts and Lydiate should allay any fears that Warburton will not be part of Wales' assault on the sport's biggest prize.

If doubts still remain then Warburton needs to remember how cruel this game can be. Injury could end his career in the blink of an eye, especially given his own warrior-like qualities and no-nonsense approach to the game. The 24-year-old is no stranger to injury and is currently sidelined with a hamstring problem that is likely to impact on his hopes of featuring for Wales in November. In addition, he missed the early stages of the Lions tour with a knee problem and a shoulder injury threatened his tour hopes earlier this year - the fine line between fitness and fragility could not be much clearer.

Warburton is of course keeping his options open and saying all the right things. But for a more honest insight into his likely thinking we could perhaps consider the comments of his Wales and Lions team-mate Adam Jones - another leading and highly-rated player out of contract but still very much hoping to push for a place in Wales' World Cup plans. "I have to look at what is best for me and my family...whether it is to stay here or go to France," he said recently. "You would be dull to turn that money down."

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.

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