Howley plays down Warburton axe
Rob Howley does not believe Sam Warburton's absence from the Wales XV to face Italy will hurt his Lions captaincy chances this summer.
Warburton missed last weekend's win over France after picking up a shoulder injury in the defeat to Ireland, but is expected to be available for the meeting with the Azzurri a week on Saturday.
However, Ryan Jones led the side superbly in Paris, while Justin Tipuric excelled in Warburton's favoured number seven role.
As a result Howley has elected to reward the side that triumphed 16-6 at Stade de France by saying 'same again' for the trip to Rome, although Warburton may yet be named among the replacements.
Warburton started the season as the outstanding candidate to lead the British & Irish Lions on their summer tour to Australia.
But his struggle to produce the sort of form that made him the star on the 2011 World Cup, allied to the excellent performances of Tipuric, Chris Robshaw and Sean O'Brien, mean he is in danger of slipping down the pecking order for a place on the plane to Australia.
No longer being an automatic pick for Wales does not help his cause but Howley, filling in for Warren Gatland while the Kiwi is away on Lions duty, does not believe his selection for the Stadio Olimpico clash will harm the 24-year-old's chances.
"Not at all," said Howley. "Although I think that is a question for Warren Gatland, not for me.
"But there have been many players not playing international rugby who have come into a Lions selection.
"So it is not a given that you have to be playing international rugby to go on a Lions tour, and it's not a given you have to be captain of your national team to be captain of the Lions."
Howley did not consult Gatland before making his decision on selection for the Italy game, but did back Warburton to bounce back and find his best form.
"Any decision you make on selection, you take your time and make sure you reflect properly after the game and think out the team and the consequences of those selections.
"In my mind it was clear that to give this side the best opportunity to go and play against Italy in terms of preparation and to reward performances on the weekend I had to go with the same side.
"I have spoken to Sam and he understands that's the nature of sport.
"I am sure Sam will be an excellent captain in his career, but for this game we decided to go with same 15. The pressure on this side for Italy is the same as it was going to Paris."