Sam Warburton; Rugby's Ultimate Sportsman
CARDIFF, WALES - MARCH 14: Wales captain Sam Warburton celebrates after the RBS Six Nations match between Wales and Ireland at Millennium Stadium on March 14, 2015 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Sam Warburton’s early retirement due to an injury overload has struck much sadness throughout the rugby community. The former Welsh captain will be remembered not only for his on field heroics but for his ambassadorial persona and substantial charitable work. Ever the gentleman away from the game of rugby, Sam Warburton has grown into one of the sports biggest names.

Injury pile-up ends a prestigious International career

Since December 2007, Sam Warburton has suffered no less than 17 major injuries. Many of these have kept him out of the game for more time than he was able to put into it. He had never let this defeat him. A great pundit during Wales and Cardiff Blues games, he won’t be short on offers post-career to do some more analysis work.

It’s not just a great rugby career that the Rhiwbina boy is well known for. He’s also a hugely charitable person, always taking time for fans passing in the street as well as significant gestures such as donating a load of rugby kit to a local charity in 2016.

His all round achievements were rightly recognised with an OBE in the most recent New Year’s Honours list, following on from a historic British and Irish Lions series in New Zealand.

Glittering career despite set backs

Despite his mass of injuries, Warburton played for his country 74 times; captaining them on 49 occasions. An amazing statistic when you consider he made only 106 appearances for his domestic club, the Cardiff Blues. This relatively low on-field performance for his club owing to his ever growing injury list as much as to his commitment to Wales’ Six Nations campaigns.

Add in his five unbeaten British and Irish Lions caps and he is definitely one of the modern greats of Celtic rugby.

Part of the 2010 Amlin Challenge Cup winning team, one Grand Slam and two Six Nations titles allow him to look fondly back at his Rugby career knowing he’s been part of some historical sides.

Rugby record setter

When Warren Gatland selected him as his Lions series captain in 2017 he became only the second man to captain two Lions series after Martin Johnson.  Some of his key milestones would make any professional rugby player green with respectful envy:

  • 49 caps as Welsh captain is a record, overtaking Ryan Jones’ 33.
  • Youngest ever captain at a Rugby World Cup.
  • Undefeated as a British and Irish Lions captain in his two tours: 2013 against Australia and 2017 in New Zealand.
Lions captain Sam Warburton runs out onto the field before the First Test match between the Australian Wallabies and the British & Irish Lions at Suncorp Stadium on June 22, 2013 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Wales Openside shirt race ‘opens up’

In respect of his retirement, Wales have been building depth in their back row for sometime. And the recent form of Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi, James Davies and the more experienced – and often overlooked during the Warburton era) Justin Tipuric, has left the race well and truly on; with Warburton’s announcement merely cutting the list down by one.

With arguably the best depth of any country in this position, Warren Gatland has plenty of hard decisions to make between now and the Rugby World Cup next year.

Following on from such a player and leader will be a hard task, but one that any player stepping-up after Warburton’s retirement, would all be fit to do.

Warburton remembered as Wales modern day legend

Warburton led his country to Six Nations glory and to a Rugby World Cup semi-final. Being a proud leader, he allowed criticism to fall back on him in defeat, yet also deflected the shower of praise towards the team (rather than himself) during every victory.

Warren Gatland, speaking after the announcement said ”His leadership, attitude and demeanour, along with his performances, have placed Sam up there as one of the best and most respected players in the world.

The current wales head coach remarked “He [Warburton] finishes with a record that he should be extremely proud of and should look back on his career with huge pride.”

Sam Warburton should be remembered for being one of the major leaders in the dressing room but equally for his fondness & affection of fans off the field. Inspiring a generation boys and girls to become not only rugby players but also better young people. Of being players and young adults who display respect and act to promote the ideals of the sport.

As a loose forward, Warburton was jointly responsible, along with his hero; Richie McCall, for enhancing the jackal style game. Living on the edge of the rulebook and making the breakdown a nightmare to work in for opposition forwards and scrum halves. Wales proudly looks back on its heroes, and Warburton will be one of the biggest.

The message from fans? ”Diolch Sam.”

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