Sam Warburton was reflecting at the start of last year on how long his career may have to run. He had turned 28 two months before and, while he wistfully thought of still playing at the age of 35, he conceded that his body, after 18 major injuries, would probably not hold out that long. As it turned out his final outing would come six months later, helping the British & Irish Lions draw the series in New Zealand with a decisive intervention at the end of the third Test when he gently dissuaded the referee, Romain Poite, from awarding the All Blacks a penalty that would have won them the match and the rubber.
Warburton took last season off to allow neck and knee injuries to repair fully and give himself a tilt at playing in the World Cup next year but the rest only convinced his body that it had had enough. Realising he would not be the player he was, he announced his retirement in what is his testimonial season nine years after making his debut for Cardiff Blues and Wales, concerned more at the thought he was letting down his region than what he was going to do for the rest of his working life.
Warburton’s selflessness was one of the reasons why the Wales head coach, Warren Gatland, surprised the rugby world in the summer of 2011, World Cup year, by naming the then 22-year old wing forward as the national side’s captain, along with his lack of ego. Warburton had that year supplanted the veteran openside Martyn Williams from the Test team, although not from the Blues, and the choice was received quizzically: he was not only inexperienced but was not seen as a demonstrative character.
As the World Cup was to show, Warburton led by example and his teammates followed. Since finishing third in 1987 the tournament had been unkind to Wales who failed to make the knockout stage in 1991, 1995 and 2007, but they reached the last four in New Zealand. They lost by a point against France in the semi-final having played the last hour with 14 men. Warburton was sent off by the referee, Alain Rolland, for a dangerous tackle on the far lighter wing Vincent Clerc.
As Wales seethed with a sense of injustice, Warburton impressed the disciplinary panel that considered his case by the calm, polite and reasoned manner in which he conducted himself despite the manifest disappointment after the biggest day of his short career, publicly complimenting him. That was Warburton, keeping his head while others were trying to find where they had mislaid theirs. It made him the epitome of a modern player, professional, single‑minded, emotionally controlled and dedicated to the point of never taking the shortest of cuts.
He was a coach’s dream of a player but, being more technical than conspicuous, he was respected rather than idolised by the Welsh public, a player who was noticed most when he was not on the field.
The height of his power was the 2011 World Cup, a tournament in which he forced more turnovers than any other player and averaged 20 tackles a match. He was an openside by inclination, but not in the classic sense like his predecessor, Martyn Williams, who was a link between forwards and backs as well as having presence at the breakdown. The transition between the two reflected the way rugby union was going in its sixth year of professionalism with the tackle area becoming increasingly important as ball‑in‑play time increased.
Warburton was not too often seen with the ball in his hands but his value was in the contact area. He picked the rucks to attack, moving in only if he felt he had at least a 50% chance of forcing a turnover. He was strong over the ball until the end, a key feature in the Lions’ final two Tests in New Zealand last year, and his willingness to put himself where it hurt was the reason he failed to extend his playing career into his 30s. As he said last year: “It [rugby] is extremely tough on your body and mine is perhaps not as durable as other players’.”
There was nothing wrong with his engine but years of bulking up so that he became around three stone heavier than his optimum weight meant bits of bodywork kept falling off, unable to keep pace. Injuries meant he played fewer than 200 matches as a professional after spending three seasons with Glamorgan Wanders: 106 for the Blues, 74 for Wales, including a record 49 as captain, and nine for the Lions in 2013 and 2017, last year becoming only the second player to lead the tourists in two series.
He became the youngest player to captain a team in the World Cup in 2011 and the youngest Lions captain in 2013. He lost the Wales captaincy at the end of 2016 but was always going to lead the Lions in New Zealand as long as he were fit, with Gatland valuing his discretion and detachment.
Warburton made a relaxed interviewee, able to detect the best laid traps and blessed with a sense of fun. As he contemplated the end of his playing career last year, he could see two benefits, other than a body that did not complain for two or three days after a match: more time to spend with his young family, whom he took on holiday hours after announcing his retirement, and the opportunity to watch his beloved Tottenham Hotspur more, even to buy a season ticket. A player who was an exemplar to all, though, will continue to find himself in considerable demand.