On Wednesday morning, news broke that stunned the rugby world. The former Wales and Lions captain, Sam Warburton, announced his retirement at the age of just 29, citing the neck and shoulder injuries that had kept him out of action since the final test of the Lions tour to New Zealand last July. The announcement has proven to be a huge shock to everyone involved in the game, but how will his illustrious career be remembered, and how will it affect the Welsh national side ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup?
Above all else, the Welshman’s outstanding leadership will define Warburton’s career. As Opta pointed out, of his 75 caps for Wales, 49 were as captain, more than any other player in the side’s history, far ahead of other talismanic figures in Welsh rugby history like Ryan Jones, Gareth Thomas and Gareth Edwards. His appointment at the age of just 22 in August 2011, coming just weeks before the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, was a bold call by head coach Warren Gatland, making Warburton the youngest captain ever at the tournament.
“The quality of the Welshman’s leadership was not just in the results achieved”
Having such a young captain could have proved too much pressure, but instead it drove the side to many outstanding performances, including a dominant display against Ireland in the quarterfinal. Even one of the few moments of recklessness in his career, a tip- tackle that earned him a red card in the semi-final with France, could not obscure an outstanding tournament.
That leadership ability did not end with Wales either. Only Martin Johnson from the 1997 and 2001 tours has captained the British and Irish Lions on two tours as Warburton did in 2013 and 2017. Not only that, but under his leadership the side took its first series victory since Johnson’s triumph in 1997. They beat Australia 2-1 in 2013, before becoming the first Lions outfit since 1971 to avoid defeat against the All Blacks after drawing the series last summer.
— Welsh Rugby Union ? (@WelshRugbyUnion) July 18, 2018
But the quality of the Welshman’s leadership was not just in the results achieved. His quiet diplomacy proved vital in gaining the respect of referees and helping his teams in the process. After being announced as Lions captain in 2013, Gatland recalled Warburton being able to question a decision in a Six Nations game with England despite not being captain that day, saying “it was a big signal to me that either referees have been talking or they all respect him, because there are only two or three players in the world who would have been allowed to do that… His ability to communicate and strike a rapport with referees could potentially have a positive influence on the game.”
“To lose a player of such skill is a major blow for any team”
That comment would prove to be prophetic in the 2017 series in New Zealand. After Lions hooker Ken Owens was penalised for an accidental offside by referee Romain Poite, Warburton calmly asked the referee to take another look at the incident, resulting in the referee changing his call from a penalty to a scrum. It has proved to be a controversial decision since, particularly for New Zealanders, but without that brilliantly effective leadership and trust built up over the years by Warburton, a historic result would have become an agonising defeat. That skill will prove to be his key legacy.
For all his skill in the diplomacy of the game, Warburton was pretty good in the game itself. The openside flanker was able to establish himself over the legendary Martyn Williams in the 2011 Six Nations on the back of immense strength that made him one of the world’s best at the breakdown to secure turnovers for his team, forming a deadly partnership with Dan Lydiate on the blindside that set the benchmark for back row performances. Some of his displays in this area, particularly in the 2011 World Cup and the Six Nations triumphs of 2012 and 2013, have become Welsh rugby folklore, not to mention his flashes of brilliance in his five Lions tests.
“Calm captaincy and brilliance at the breakdown will mark him down as one of the great back rowers in Welsh rugby history”
On top of this, his personal resilience from setbacks also became one of the hallmarks of his career. To recover from a sending off in a World Cup semi-final is a difficult psychological task for any sportsman to recover from, but Warburton managed it superbly, returning in the following year to the Six Nations and captaining his country to the Grand Slam. As the Lions tour approached in 2013, Wales had endured an eight-game losing streak under his leadership, and an injury had seen him lose his place in the side for the wins over France and Italy.
But that determination shone through again, and by the end of the tournament Wales were champions and he was odds-on favourite to captain the Lions. Sadly, this injury proved one obstacle too many to overcome. For Wales, the retirement of Warburton could have significant implications. To lose a player of such skill is a major blow for any team. His ability to dominate the game physically and produce outstanding performances in crunch games will be a big loss as Wales head into a Rugby World Cup year. In particular, the fact that the side won’t be able to count on Warburton as they look to contain the brilliant Australian flanker David Pocock at next year’s pool stage, could create a problem for Gatland.
Congratulations to Sam Warburton on an amazing career.
Achieved so much, in a reasonably short career.
How he made it to 29, playing as he did, is remarkable.
King of the jackal.
Well played, Sam.
— Paul Williams (@thepaulwilliams) July 18, 2018
However, if there is one team in world rugby who can cope with a loss in the back row, it is Wales, who boast incredible strength in this position. Warburton’s long-standing rival Justin Tipuric has the most experience with 57 caps. But Tupuric will face competition from Josh Navidi, probably the best player in Wales over the past season with Cardiff Blues and the national team, as well as Ellis Jenkins and James Davies, who were both superb in the summer tests against South Africa and Argentina. Therefore, there are plenty of excellent candidates to take the Number 7 shirt for Wales, even if none can match the experience of Warburton.
Warburton can reflect positively on a historic career, albeit one cruelly curtailed by injury. His contribution to Wales and the Lions through commanding but calm captaincy and brilliance at the breakdown will mark him down as one of the great back rowers in Welsh rugby history, and probably its greatest ever captain. Although the side will be able to make up for his loss in terms of quality on the pitch, whether it will be able to fill the void of his leadership role remains to be seen. As for Warburton’s future, his good performances as a BBC pundit last season will likely make him hotly recruited in this area in the near future. Or, perhaps he will use his skills in quiet diplomacy at a certain tricky negotiation in Brussels.