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How greater exposure to foreign clubs could rejuvenate English rugby

The Premiership is under pressure from the burgeoning success of the URC and the Top 14.

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'Rugby will never be perfectly safe, people need to accept that'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo via

Sam Warburton is full of the joys of spring these days. Usually, at this time of year, he would be a wreck with the Guinness Six Nations over for another season. He played in eight championships, winning 34 of his 74 Wales caps in the tournament, and his body knew all about its onerous toll. In the end, it got too much. He skippered the British and Irish Lions to their infamous drawn Test series in 2017 and that was that. Subsequent neck and knee surgeries couldn’t fix him, and he called it quits in July 2018 at just the age of 29.


Nearly five years later, the rugby afterlife is treating him well. Media punditry suits better than his coaching flirtation with Wales in the early part of the Wayne Pivac era, and his battered body is coming along nicely – just as predicted.

There were a few depressing moments, namely a painful dog walking incident, but at the age of 34, Warburton feels as rude a health as possible thanks to constant maintenance. “I remember when I was still playing, a good friend who had retired a couple of years earlier was like, ‘Mate, you won’t believe how much better you will feel after you stop’,” he explained to RugbyPass.

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“A year into my retirement I was walking the dog with my father, and we had to pick up some poop. We went to pick at the same time and I went, ‘Does that not hurt your knees when you do that?’ He was 62 at the time and he said, ‘No’. I was thinking, ‘Flippin’ heck, I’m in trouble. I’m 30 and it hurts’. But now I’m 34 and have noticed a lot of those things have suddenly become so much easier, my body is getting much, much better.

“I still do a heck of a lot of training, not just running and lifting weights, a lot of corrective physio three, four times a week just to make sure I keep my body intact. It is much, much better now, which is nice. I always start every gym session with 10, 15 minutes of physiotherapy.


“My brother luckily is a physio at Cardiff, and he was there when I was playing, so he still gives me a lot of stuff to do which really looks after my shoulders. I thought my shoulders would be in a bit of a pickle. They are not great now. I wouldn’t be able to play a game of rugby, or I wouldn’t be able to serve in tennis for example. That would be too sore but for the day-to-day things, I’m absolutely fine.”

Warburton carved his reputation where it hurts, regularly over the ball at the breakdown. With it came far too many aches and pains. World Rugby have since attempted to reduce the danger levels, so how would the two-time Lions tour skipper fare in the collision zone if he was still playing?


“I’d probably still do what I was doing with Wales in 2020,” he explained, referencing his technical work as a Test-level assistant to Pivac. “There are still a lot of players who are very under-skilled at the breakdown. If you see a jackal turnover, I always say to the rugby viewer rather than a first look at the jackal, which is what we always admire, look at the cleanout that attempted to get rid of him, and more often or not it is terrible, it is really bad.

“There is a player who is too high, who has flopped on top of someone, who hasn’t got there quick enough at the right height, hasn’t gone in at the right angle and targeted a leg to get a hook and make him get stable. The breakdown in the attack is very poorly serviced, so I’d focus on that – something which I did when I was coaching and seemed to have some reasonable success.

“But the breakdown is better than it has been. I like the way it is refereed. What is gone now is the second rows charging in from 10 metres with no arms. That’s gone and that is why we are seeing jackallers still being effective because of cleanout technique. If you have a poor technique now you are not going to be able to get rid of that guy. And you mindlessly just don’t get rid of him either with 18-stone of acceleration, which is good and safe for the game. But there is still room for improvement from an attacking breakdown perspective with player skill sets.”

Accompanying the increased safety emphasis is a plethora of cards punishing players who refuse to mend their illicit ways. Just look at the red carding of France’s Mohamed Haouas for recklessly charging into a ruck last month versus Scotland. Some other disciplinary decisions, though, split the rugby world.


Take last weekend’s red card for Freddie Steward in Dublin. The England full-back was sent off for head contact with Ireland’s Hugo Keenan but that hotly debated sanction was rescinded when a disciplinary hearing verdict emerged on Wednesday morning, officials stating it should have only been a yellow card.

The controversy left Warburton – an Asahi Super Dry ambassador – wondering if it is time for northern hemisphere rugby to adopt the trial currently in 2023 Super Rugby Pacific. Bosses there wanted to stop multiple replays being examined multiple times and the process taking multiple minutes involving the referee, ARs and the TMO to decide yellow or red. Now, it is play on, with the TMO left to review an incident to see if it merits an upgrade from yellow to red.


“It’s getting better,” remarked Warburton about the current NH card situation. “There are always going to be some that are slightly subjective – and I do think the Freddie Steward one is right to be just a yellow card.

“You must remember you have got guys, who are on average 17-stone, accelerating into each other, so you’re going to get some head knocks. That’s the thing we have got to accept with rugby – rugby will never be perfectly safe. We can certainly try and make it safer, and we can continue to do that forever and a day. But head knocks are unavoidable, and people need to accept that.

“I see so many things that are rugby incidents. For anything that has malicious intent or poor technique certainly, the referees are doing a good job in punishing those firmly. But the Freddie Steward one would have been the perfect example of what World Rugby are trialling in the southern hemisphere where you go off for that yellow that can be upgraded to red if need be.

“My tip tackle [the red card in the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final] would be an example, you go off for a yellow and then you would have 10 minutes to really assess if this a yellow or a red and you could always upgrade it.

“With Freddie Steward, it would have taken a strong person (in that match officials team) when they are live on TV in front of 10 million people to go to the referee, ‘I disagree; I think that is yellow’. If that gets taken away by this 10-minute period where you go off for yellow and it can get upgraded to red, that is looking after the officials and that is probably a fairer way to do it.”

Wales remains a topic very close to Warburton’s heart. With Pivac’s tenure unravelling, Warren Gatland answered the SOS. One win in five resulted but how it finished enthused their ex-skipper. “This campaign for Wales was just always going to be about discovery,” he suggested.

“They were never going to compete with Ireland, and you saw that first game. You could tell Warren was trying combinations, trying to figure out his best players. It has been positive as the one thing that was going to be really difficult to improve was attack. Against Ireland and Scotland, the attack just wasn’t there. Even England to a certain extent.

“But then they scored eight tries in the last two games and wow, that really pleased me. That’s probably the hardest fix, to get your attack going and it improved massively. The past regime picked a lot of players, but I wouldn’t say they picked a lot and stuck with a lot whereas Warren picked Joe Hawkins, gave him three, four games in a row, picked Mason Grady, gave him two, three games in a row, gave Christ Tshiunza two starts in a row. They gave players game time. Daf Jenkins got some good game time.

“I’m seeing some good youngsters, but Wales don’t have individuals the same quality as France or Ireland. We can talk about all the funding models, pro teams, all these things, but at the end of the day they don’t have the same calibre of player and it goes into way deeper issues like academies. But right now Wales, what they had to work with, they have some good youngsters, gave them some vital experience going to a World Cup, but depth is going to be our most challenging issue.”

Speaking his mind isn’t an issue for Warburton, the media pundit. For some in that job, old dressing room ties still remain and analysis suffers. Not him. “I’m comfortable, I don’t mind,” he insisted. “I always say, I wouldn’t say anything I wouldn’t say at a team meeting on a Monday as long as you are fair.

“It isn’t nice just to call people out when you haven’t done your due diligence and watched. People would criticise me and I was, ‘Hang on, you haven’t watched me, I’m actually doing alright. I might have played one average game and you’re judging my season on that’. As long as you do due diligence and just say what you would say to a player in a team meeting or as I would as a coach, that is being fair.”

After last month’s Wales-England fixture strike was averted, Warburton expressed concern the WRU would still go nuclear and cut the regions from four to three. That fear continues. “From the reports, Wales can only sustain three which I don’t think should happen.

“I saw a good article from Dragons chairman David Buttress. He said if he was part of a business that said, ‘Right, we have got to chop the marketing department because we haven’t got enough money, I would fire that person straight away. It needs to be about growth’. I was going, ‘Wow, I absolutely love that because I could completely agree’.

“I have always thought we need to have a long-term aspiration to have a region up north. There is no evidence to show it works but what evidence have you got to show the four regions down south have worked because we haven’t won’t anything for 20 years? The WRU might want to go down to three and it is inevitable that might happen, but I would love four to be maintained and have the aspiration to develop a fifth up north.

“To merge now is going to be difficult. My gut feeling would be a merger between Ospreys and Scarlets, like was muted a couple of years ago, but if you did merge you strengthen the tier below, your old-school Cardiff, Swansea, Newport, Neath, so people can have that local town kind of tribalism and support down there.”

Away from the internecine Welsh war, Warburton named the first half of Ireland versus France as his tournament highlight, adding that is backing the underperforming Maro Itoje to overcome his England slump. “Ireland-France, I was watching at home and only had time to watch the first half because I had to go and do something and was going to watch the second half another time.

I remember closing the laptop laughing, saying out loud, ‘What a game!’ My wife went, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘That first half is one of the best halves of rugby I’ve ever seen’. It was phenomenal, one of the best sporting things I ever saw in my life.”

As for Itoje, his 2017 Lions tour teammate, Warburton suggested: “He was better against Ireland, his best game of the championship. It [a slump] happens. I didn’t play top-class rugby for the whole of my career. There are always peaks and troughs. Itoje went through two years ago what Antoine Dupont is going through now – on this crest of a wave and nothing can go wrong, but it will happen.

“It will happen to Dupont; it will happen to everyone. Everyone just has a quieter campaign but that class and that ability will forever be there, it is just down to the coaches to get it out of him. Maro hasn’t just displayed it once or twice, he has done it for four or five years playing excellently well. That isn’t going to be gone. That potential is still going to be there, and his ceiling is the highest of all the second rows. I’d never give up on him.”

  • Asahi Super Dry are the Official Beer Partner of Rugby World Cup 2023 and will be taking fans beyond expected this summer


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