When news of Sam Warburton’s retirement from professional rugby union arrived on Wednesday morning it came in typically dignified and understated fashion.
He spoke of the pride at representing the Cardiff Blues, Wales and the British & Lions, and thanked the friends, family, teachers and coaches who had helped him on his journey from Llanishen Fach Primary School to becoming his country’s most capped captain and two-time Lions skipper.
There was gratitude for the role Wales coach Warren Gatland has played in his rise but there was no grandstanding, just pride in the glittering player career that has ended at just 29.
Warburton had hoped to return to the field following an enforced sabbatical last season as he battled knee and neck injuries, but ultimately the physical toll of eight years spent at Test rugby’s coalface has proved too great.
The final image of him on a rugby pitch will remain the one in which, as Lions captain, he raised the series trophy together with All Blacks skipper Kieran Read, unsure whether to celebrate or despair.
An initial sense of disappointment in letting a shot at a series victory over New Zealand slip by has since dissipated to be replaced by pride, and that July evening at Eden Park should ultimately rank as the crowning glory of a brilliant career.
To have affected the second and third Tests of that Lions series as he did, considering the immense strain his body was already under, was nothing short of heroic. His movement might not have been as sharp and agile as it had been four years earlier in Australia, but his calm, assured leadership was integral in seeing his side over the line.
Warburton’s elevation to the Wales captaincy had been something of a gamble ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup. But it was one that paid off handsomely for Gatland and Wales.
His performance in defence and at the breakdown alongside Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau in the quarterfinal win over Ireland in Wellington remains one of his finest in the red of Wales. It also set the tone for the next four years, which must rank as the peak of his career.
In that time Warburton led Wales to fourth place at the World Cup and two Six Nations championships – including a Grand Slam – while he captained the Lions to series victory over the Wallabies in 2013.
His best performances on a rugby pitch both came in the year of that successful tour of Australia.
In March 2013, Warburton switched to the blindside to accommodate Justin Tipuric in the Wales back-row and the pair eviscerated England’s Grand Slam hopes. Three months later he took on Michael Hooper in Melbourne and did more than any other Lion in the second Test to prevent the Wallabies from sending the series to a decider.
Warburton was Gatland’s eyes and ears on the pitch for both Wales and the Lions, the embodiment of the committed, physical approach the New Zealander favours, but also a level-headed leader he knew he could trust – and other players would follow.
Warburton missed the decisive third Test of that 2013 Lions tour with a hamstring injury, the 10th major injury of 20 that he would suffer in just nine years.
Having made a career out the breakdown, perfecting the art of the ‘jackal’, it can come as little surprise that the bulk of his injuries affected his knees and shoulders.
Warburton once estimated that he would hit between 40 and 45 rucks on both sides of the ball during a game. The tax on his body, having done that in 79 Test matches, is difficult to compute.
Warburton bows out before his 30th birthday but with few regrets and as a legend of the British game. The only ‘what-if’ from a decade-long spell at the top being that unfortunate red card in the 2011 World Cup semi-final against France.
The man himself will not think too long about that, however, as he spends time with his young family, his dog, Ledley, and plots his next trip to watch Tottenham.
Warburton, the surprise selection as Wales captain, has proven himself to be one of his country’s and the Lions’ finest leaders and players of this or any generation. He deserves all the plaudits, and rest, that will now come his way.
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