Warburton set for World Cup armband
Sam Warburton looks increasingly likely to be appointed Wales' World Cup captain.
The 22-year-old Cardiff Blues flanker will lead his country against England in Saturday's penultimate World Cup warm-up game. It is the third time in successive Tests for him to skipper Wales, filling a vacancy created by Matthew Rees' absence, who - it has emerged - faces probable surgery on a neck problem that is believed to be disc-related.
Wales coach Warren Gatland had hoped that any operation might be delayed until after the World Cup campaign, which begins against South Africa in Wellington on September 11, but it is thought Scarlets hooker Rees' chances of making the tournament are currently less than 50%.
"He has had an injection, but he is still in a lot of pain," said Gatland. "It looks like he will need an operation sooner, rather than later. We will have to sit down and discuss things with him."
Rees, 30, skippered Wales throughout their autumn Test campaign and the RBS 6 Nations Championship last season.
A Test starter on the 2009 British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa, the 47 times-capped forward would be a huge loss for Gatland, especially given a tough World Cup pool that sees Wales drawn alongside the Springboks, Samoa, Fiji and Namibia.
Ospreys hooker Richard Hibbard - Rees' Wales understudy last term - has not played since undergoing shoulder surgery earlier this summer, but is understood to now be fully fit. If Rees is ruled out of the tournament, then Gatland would face choosing three hookers from Hibbard, Huw Bennett, Lloyd Burns and Ken Owens.
Wales and England face a quickfire rematch after Martin Johnson's men triumphed narrowly at Twickenham last weekend, and Gatland is only contemplating one outcome at the Millennium Stadium.
"We have spoken as a group about how important it is for us to win on Saturday," added Gatland, who has called up James Hook, Gavin Henson, Lloyd Burns and Luke Charteris for their first pre-tournament starts.
"If we are going to be serious contenders in this World Cup, we need to send out a message that we are good enough to beat England at home and do that next week as well (against Argentina)."