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'It was absolutely savage... literally eat, sleep, train. So brutal'

By Liam Heagney
Sam Warburton, the former British and Irish Lions skipper, is a Canterbury ambassador

Sam Warburton was thankfully alive and kicking this past week, restored to rude health after feeling unwell and being unable to speak when originally lined up to do some ambassadorial work on behalf of Canterbury after they extended their existing partnership to cover the upcoming 2025 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia.

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Canterbury and the Lions have a special place in the heart of the retired two-tour skipper. Despite collecting multiple jerseys throughout his stellar career for Wales and Cardiff, the shirt he wore in the first half of the 2017 second Test win over the All Blacks in Wellington is the only one up on display at home.

Warburton has never been the type that shows off his past achievements but what he had done to commemorate what was achieved on tour six years ago in New Zealand sounds iconic. “I have only got one jersey up in my house actually and that is when the Lions won in the second Test in 2017,” he revealed to RugbyPass.

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“It’s my Canterbury jersey. We had two every game and I would change at half-time and put my second one on. I swapped my second-half jersey for Kieran Read’s jersey, which was his 99th cap. Given it was a winning Lions Test jersey and it was in that infamous second Test in Wellington, I have got that up with my Lions cap and Kieran Read’s jersey in a frame as well.

“I don’t like having much up in my house, that is just in my garage where my gym is. I don’t want to reminisce too much. That is the only one I have got up. That is my personal favourite jersey and it was great that I managed to get Kieran Read’s as well.”

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Explain the logic, though, behind the half-time shirt change. “With the Lions, I always changed at half-time so that I had two authentic playing shirts and that if someone did want to swap, you’d be giving them a proper one. When you played internationals, you didn’t swap every game. Sometimes you did, sometimes you didn’t. But when you play for the Lions, every game the opposition floods in.

“New Zealand don’t swap very often when they play Wales. But for the Lions they all swap, they all want to swap with you, which makes you realise how high a regard they hold for the Lions. So for the Lions, we get given two shirts and it’s only at Lions level because at Lions level everybody wants to swap.”

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Warburton sure looked the part at the time in his red Lions jersey. “It’s lightweight but also looks casual at the same time,” he attested about the garment that the tourists wore in a series drawn one-all following third Test stalemate in Auckland.

“We have seen jerseys which are really skintight, and they look skintight and they are not very attractive, but I always think Canterbury are very practical, breathable, lightweight and durable. It is a very difficult combination to get but Canterbury seem to nail it and with another Lions tour on the horizon, the proof will be in the pudding.”

Just like watching Wales at the upcoming Rugby World Cup in France. Warren Gatland’s return as their head coach has been mired by a myriad of controversies involving the WRU and there are fears that his struggling team won’t escape their pool in France versus Australia, Fiji, Georgia and Portugal and will instead be eliminated. Warburton, though, senses a potential bounce back akin to what materialised 12 years ago when they reached the semi-finals in New Zealand against the odds.

“There are so many parallels to 2011,” he reckoned. “Wales came fourth in the Six Nations and then had a good World Cup warm-up campaign winning two out of three games. Won one, lost one with England, beat Argentina well, went out to World Cup, carried on building that momentum with a young, impressionable group, which is very similar, and losing their captain late.

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“Wales have lost some very senior leaders in their squad in recent times, but with a young group who are very impressionable under Waren’s guidance, you can really physically shape them but mentally shape them into a very determined, tough to beat, resilient side. This is great that he has got that time with this young group now to really try to shape them, not just for the World Cup but for the next one of two cycles.

“It is exciting times for Wales and I am seeing some genuine talent who I expect to see on Lions tours in two years’ time. Daf Jenkins, Christ Tshiunza, Jac Morgan, hopefully Joe Hawkins in time, Mason Grady, Louis Rees-Zammit. There is some really good young quality there now that gives me some optimism for Welsh rugby. Maybe not in the immediate future but for the next cycle in particular.”

Now 34 years old with a young family to care for, Warburton understands why the likes of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric opted out. “Those guys have done everything. Everything. Justin is 34, 35. Alun Wyn has got three kids, Tipuric has four kids. The thought of being away all summer with no guarantees about the World Cup and you could be away again if you go to France, your priorities slightly change as you get older.

“You want to be able to give your young family the time they deserve. They can do that by playing club rugby. They have got nothing left to prove to anybody. They have both been phenomenal, two of the best players in Welsh rugby history.

“It is a very admirable decision that they have made to prioritise club rugby and family and, to be honest, if you look at the succession plan of 2019, I don’t think any coach would have expected them to be there for this World Cup anyway. Wales should have had more robust plans in place to be able to cope with losing these two players. They will be fine. They need to look beyond these guys. They have had phenomenal careers, but it is very smart by both men.”

The word on the street in Wales is that Gatland is working the players who remain in his squad to the bone to raise their fitness to an extravagant level. It’s a tactic the head coach has used before in a World Cup pre-season and even though he is long since retired, the memories of the 2011 build-up still frighten Warburton.

“Jesus Christ, I don’t even need to think. Any time you mention Poland in 2011, you put your head in your hands. Every day you got up and did a swimming fitness session at six in the morning, had breakfast, did a gruelling fitness session at nine with running, wrestling, circuits, grappling in sand pits – it was absolutely savage.

“Then you go and have lunch, fall asleep, come back, you’d do a rugby session, a skills session in the afternoon, go back, have another nap and then have a weights session at eight o’clock at night and you’d replicate that day on many occasions. That was, oh my god, just the hardest days you ever had. It was literally eat, train, sleep, eat train, sleep; it was so brutal. A very tough campaign.

“You do very much focus on the here and now and no more so than a World Cup pre-season camp because the sessions are so hard, literally your focus is on how you are going to get through the next day. What have they got up their sleeve for us tomorrow, are they going to punish us in training?

“It’s so daunting, with so many hurdles to get through with squad camps and warmup matches and you are going to get injuries, you are going to lose players in those games. There are so many hurdles and selection hurdles to get through to get to a World Cup. For a player, it is a long time away and it is a gruelling campaign, but it obviously worth it.”

Another player not involved is the aforementioned Hawkins, the 21-year-old whose move to Exeter has ruled him out of Wales selection due to the WRU caps rule for players based outside the country. It’s a delicate subject. “He would have started for Wales in the World Cup, and I don’t blame Joe (for leaving),” said Warburton.

“There are a lot of players who have very uncertain financial futures, didn’t know what was going to happen, didn’t know if there was going to be a contract for them. He got given a good contract in Exeter which guarantees him quality rugby, quality coaching, quality environment. You are at a difficult crossroads, and you can’t turn that down, so I don’t blame him for going whatsoever.

“It’s just a byproduct of slow decision-making within Wales rugby that players have had to make premature decisions that have cost international careers. I do think we need to figure out a way that someone of Joe Hawkins’ quality can play for Wales. It is not going to happen for this World Cup, but I would be disappointed if I can’t see him play for Wales in the next few years.”

Playing outside Wales was something Warburton only once genuinely contemplated during a Test career that spanned from 2009 through to 2017. “I went over Toulon when I was 24,” he explained. “I would have doubled the money I would have had at home. I went out just before the Lions tour in 2013 and it [the move] would have gone ahead in 2014.

“I’m not trying to sound a good guy, but the reason I didn’t go was I couldn’t play for Toulon like I played for Wales 30 times a year. I knew from a durability perspective I was never going to be able to live up to that expectation given my injury history. And as national captain, I didn’t think it sent a very good message out for your national captain to play in Toulon, as good an opportunity as it would have been.

“That was the only one time I ever was close to going abroad. There was no cap ruling stopping me, I just decided that as national captain it wouldn’t have set me up very well to continue playing international rugby at a high level.

“Leigh Halfpenny went out and I could have gone out there and won Champions Cups, but I wanted to be very loyal to Cardiff at the same time. The thought of being a one-club man and being at Cardiff my whole career was strangely, although it wouldn’t have been as lucrative and maybe not as sexy, more appealing for me to stay.”

  • Sam Warburton is a Canterbury ambassador. Sam was speaking as Canterbury and the British and Irish Lions extend their partnership for the 2025 tour of Australia, launching the Origins Schools programme, marking the first official collaboration between The British and Irish Lions, Canterbury, and schools rugby.
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Turlough 4 hours ago
Jean de Villiers' three word response to 'best in the world' debate

This ‘raging’ debate is only happenning in media circles and has never been a topic in Ireland (although SA media are interested). It makes the media companies money I guess. SA are RWC champions and #1 ranked team although Ireland are back within a point there. The facts point to SA. For a lot of 2021 France beat ALL their rivals and Ireland similar in 2022-2023. It is not wrong to say that on such form either can be deemed to be the current best team if they have beaten all their rivals and ranked #1. The ‘have to have won a world cup’ stipulation is nonsense. The world cup draw and scheduling has been tailored to the traditional big teams since the start. The scheduling also which sees the big teams sheltered from playing a hard pool match the week before has also been a constant. It is extraordinary that for example France have made so many finals. Ireland who were realistically only contenders in 2023 were in a Pool with two other top 5 teams and had to play one of them 7 days before a quarter final against France or New Zealand. Always going to be a coin toss. Scotland’s situation was worse. New Zealand had great chances in 1995, 1999, 2007 but they could not win a tight RWC match. The first tight match they ever won was versus France in the 2011 final, literally they lost every other tight match before that. Some of those NZ teams around that era were #1 surely?

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