Sam Warburton’s career was far too short but as he draws a line under a bruising nine-year spell, his legacy in the game rivals any in the northern hemisphere and in the British & Irish Lions’ fine history.
Aged 29, it seems unfathomable that Warburton will not be leading Wales into the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but his is a career blighted by the misfortune of injury, robbing him of further accolades and years on the pitch.
There are few in the game with a brain and perspective of Warburton. He thinks beyond his years; even back in 2011 when he captained Wales, he spoke as a seasoned veteran. This calm, assured leadership saw him chief the Lions on the 2013 and 2017 tours, while memories with Wales will be anchored around two Six Nations titles and a further Grand Slam. But that does not dilute the shock or sadness of Wednesday’s announcement.
The statement from Warburton said it all: “Unfortunately, after a long period of rest and rehabilitation the decision to retire from rugby has been made with my health and wellbeing as a priority as my body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training.” This was selfless, fundamentally unable to let teammates or himself down if he felt he was not at his best.
The announcement came after a season where he did not hit a ruck in anger, following neck injury surgery post-Lions tour and knee surgery last December. Surgery apart, he was already contemplating resting body and mind after his bruising 2017. The list of body blows is extensive and unsympathetic.
Warburton’s last match was in July 2017 for the Lions against the All Blacks in that drawn third Test. He was heroic, but it was his calm demeanour in the dying embers which remain etched, quietly, in Lions history. Prior to the tour, head coach Gatland said one key aspect of Warburton’s leadership was how he communicated with referees. They listened to him. And so in those final throes in Auckland, as Romain Poite made the call against Ken Owens — one which would have given the All Blacks a kickable penalty to win the match — it was proven. There is no doubt Warburton’s diplomatic diligence and rapport persuaded Poite to consult the TMO, and then overturn the decision.
“He performs on the biggest of stages, never takes a backward step, and rallies those around him,” Wales legend Shane Williams said after that third Test. “I can’t stress enough my praise for him as a player and a bloke.” On the field he was titan of an openside, but it was his lack of self-regard for his own rugby mortality which has contributed to the premature end to his career. There was that heroic performance for Wales against Ireland in the 2015 Six Nations, and then the same two years previous against Scotland. But he was never one to shout and scream about his own performances, and the same went for his leadership style.
There were times when the captaincy of Wales got too much. When Gatland got the job back in 2007, he looked to Warburton as his Richie McCaw-type figure. There are parallels in ability, composed leadership and team-over-body mindset, but it did get to him on occasion, affecting his form. But still his leadership was irresistible to Gatland. Though Alun Wyn Jones led Wales into the 2017 Six Nations campaign, with Warburton preferring a place in the shadows, there was never going to be anyone but Warburton to lead the Lions against New Zealand.
Warburton was just 24 when Gatland turned to him to captain the Lions to Australia in 2013. Older and wiser four years on, but still fundamentally the same individual, he battled to regain fitness from a knee injury, having been forced to miss the first Test against the All Blacks. But he was still as courteous and thoughtful as ever. Situations, reviews, form, fitness, perspective and criticism did not change him, and that is testament to the man. I remember speaking to him in 2013 after he was named Lions captain. The smile was unwavering, pride in spades but a calm focus and determination to pay back Gatland’s trust and lead the Lions to victory.
Warburton still has an important role to play in the game. Gone far too soon from the field, but his voice carries weight and authority off it. Back in March he spoke of rugby’s madness at contemplating prolonging seasons. The players’ bodies have never taken such a battering, and Warburton needs to be at the forefront of telling the powers that be the reality of this from his first-hand experience. He said at that time he was 100 percent sure he would play again. Unfortunately for rugby and Warburton, the prediction was optimistic.
“As one chapter finishes, another begins, which I’ll enter with the same level of passion and determination as the last,” Warburton said Wednesday. In March in an interview with The Times, he recalled a conversation he had with Gatland: “I said, ‘I’ve got a daughter now and I want to be able to go to the beach with her and hold her.'” Warburton’s world has now changed, focus completely on family, but rugby cannot afford to lose him completely.