Rugby World Cup 2011: Wales coach Gatland praises Warburton class

Sam Warburton (left) and Warren Gatland
Wales captain Sam Warburton is highly-rated by coach Warren Gatland

Wales coach Warren Gatland has tipped captain Sam Warburton to make an impact at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

Warburton will become the youngest World Cup captain, aged 22 years and 341 days, when he leads Wales against champions South Africa on Sunday.

The Cardiff Blues flanker will go head-to-head with world-class Springboks openside Heinrich Brussow in their opening Pool D clash in Wellington.

"A lot of people haven't seen a lot of Sam Warburton," said coach Gatland.

"But I think he will create an impact after a few games in this World Cup."

Gatland believes his skipper will win new worldwide admirers in New Zealand as he places Warburton in the same openside bracket as Australian David Pocock and All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

"There are three definite what I consider world-class players at the moment in terms of Pocock, McCaw and Brussow," said Gatland.

"And I would rate Sam in that category as well."

Warburton also earned the praise of lock Luke Charteris, who said: "He has the respect of all the boys because of the kind of guy he is off the field, but on the field he's world-class.

"To say that about a 22-year-old is pretty rare, but at that age he has already proven himself against the world's top players on the world stage.

"In the three games he has been captain I think he's been outstanding and I think that shows in the way the team has been playing."

Warburton, who will skipper a Wales team containing nine World Cup debutants, must dominate the breakdown area if Wales are beat the Springboks for just the second time in 105 years.

"Brussow caused a few problems in 2009 against the Lions," Gatland added.

"He is a genuine openside in terms of getting on the ball and creating turnovers."

Warburton added: "I haven't played against Brussow yet, but I have been watching clips of him and he is incredibly effective in that area.

"He's one of the better players in the world at the breakdown at the moment."

Gatland has made three changes from the side that beat England in a World Cup warm-up game last month, recalling centre Jonathan Davies, hooker Huw Bennett and prop Adam Jones.

The Welsh begin their 2011 World Cup campaign in Wellington as they did in 1987 when Wales enjoyed their best performance at rugby's showpiece occasion.

But Wales have only qualified for the knockout stages twice in the five World Cups since, finishing third in the opening tournament in New Zealand 24 years ago.

Wales, however, have lost their last three games against South Africa by an aggregate of just 12 points

"The last three or four times we have played them we've been in a position to win," said Gatland.

"Some of the losses were a little bit our own downfall in terms of accuracy at key moments.

"It's just working hard to get over the line. We are not going into this game hoping they have a bad day and hoping everything goes well for us.

"We are going into this game with some confidence. We've had a good preparation period and physically feel in great shape. We are looking forward to Sunday."

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