The tour captain was visibly shocked when news of the tragedy reached him and his team at a Maori welcome ceremony they were attending in Waitangi.
He quickly pledged: “Future performances and wins, we’ll dedicate to those who have been involved.
“We can play a small part in trying to cheer a majority of the nation up by trying to be successful over here. We’ll commit our performances and all our efforts to those involved.”
His message came from the heart, but the business of winning matches on this tour will take more than good intentions. That much became crystal clear on Saturday when the Lions struggled to beat a team of part-timers 13-7 in their opening fixture.
It was supposed to be the gentle warm-up before the serious business of taking on New Zealand’s red-hot provincial sides ahead of the Test series. But the jet-lagged Lions were off the pace and out of sorts. A repeat on Wednesday against the Auckland Blues and they will lose.
“Do you want the clean version?” Warburton replied when asked what he said to the players. “I can’t tell you exactly what I said! We base our game on a few key components and we lost the physical battle in the first half.
“I don’t think we won enough collisions in defence. We’re not just about taking scrums and driving lineouts, we want to get the back line moving as well.
“We’ve got some electric backs and we want to play some rugby and score tries. We realise to beat the All Blacks you have to score points – 20 minimum.
“We know we’re not going to win the Test series by taking every three-point opportunity.”
Saying it is one thing, putting it into practice quite another when you are a scratch team in New Zealand with next to no time to work on anything.
The Lions’ schedule of 10 matches in five weeks against the world’s best players is ludicrous enough.
Now factor in just 72 hours before the first game to shake off the effects of a 26-hour flight – then add a packed diary of commercial and community activities.
“The last three days have been really tough if I’m honest,” Ben Te’o admitted yesterday. “Waking up at one in the morning, some guys getting one or two hours sleep.
“Boys really, really tired before training and then before games.” Warren Gatland then revealed Ross Moriarty and Kyle Sinckler had suffered back spasms.
How? “We’ve done community stuff where the guys have been sitting in cars for five hours,” said the coach. “They’re probably still recovering from the effects of the flight as well.”
“It’s going to get harder, but we’ve got to keep lifting,” added Te’o. “Keep training, keep working on our combinations. I think we’re going to come through all right.”
Wishful thinking, some will say. The hard work starts now.