In Depth

Sam Warburton retires: tributes for Welsh rugby star

The Lions captain has called time on his career at the age of 29 after more than 20 major injuries

British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton has retired from rugby at the age of 29 – an announcement that stunned Wales and the wider rugby world.

Since skippering the Lions to their memorable drawn series against the All Blacks 12 months ago in New Zealand, Warburton has been battling serious knee and neck injuries that required surgery.

He recently returned to training with his club, Cardiff Blues, but his body is no longer what it was and Warburton has reluctantly called time on a glittering career that brought him 79 caps – 74 for Wales and five for the Lions – and a reputation as one of the game’s gentlemen.

Among his career highlights were captaining Wales to the 2012 Six Nations title with a Grand Slam and leading the 2013 Lions to a series win over Australia - the tourists’ first Test series success in 16 years.

“My body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training,” said Warburton in his shock statement. “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.”

Warburton, a fearless flanker, has endured a series of nasty injuries over the years, a result of his courage in putting his body in places where other rugby players don’t.

Two years ago website Wales Online listed his 20 major injuries, which included “a plate inserted into his jaw, two knee operations, two shoulder surgeries and… an 8cm tear in his hamstring and various episodes of shoulder nerve damage”.

The list is an indication of the alarmingly physical nature of modern rugby, and the retirement of one of the sport’s stars in his twenties should be a wake-up call to the authorities that something needs to be done to reduce the brutality of the sport.

In the short-term, however, Warburton is receiving plaudits from around the world and across sport for a career characterised by utter commitment and integrity.

“I'm extremely proud of what I managed to achieve,” said Warburton. “There are so many people who helped me along the way from schoolteachers, coaches, friends and family. I thank you so much for supporting my dreams and aspirations. I hope they too can take some pride from my career.”

What they are saying about Warburton:

Wales and Lions coach Warren Gatland: "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. He finishes with a record that he should be extremely proud of and should look back on his career with huge pride."

Wales footballer Gareth Bale: “Congratulations on an incredible career mate. Good luck for everything in the future.”

WRU chief executive Martyn Phillip: “Sam has left the jersey in a better place which is the goal I know most, if not all, Welsh players set themselves. The way that Sam has conducted himself as Wales and Lions captain, on and off the pitch, has been exemplary.”

Wales legend Gareth Edwards: “Sam has played the game in one way; he puts his head in these dangerous places, he hasn't been afraid to play the game physically. He'll be a loss to the Blues because he’s a special player and a special captain but the most important thing is that Sam is happy with his decision and that he walks away from the game with everything OK.”

Tour de France leader Geraint Thomas: “Sam’s had a fantastic career. Good luck to him in whatever he does next.”

Former England and Lions coach Clive Woodward: “The entire game will be poorer for his retirement but at the same time united in praise of a quite exceptional career and an exemplary bloke.”

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