Sam Warburton: Flanker ranks alongside legends of Welsh rugby

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Sam Warburton: The best bits

So where will Sam Warburton rank in the illustrious history of Welsh and British and Irish Lions rugby? The statistics would suggest as one of the best.

Aged 29, the all-action flanker has been forced to retire after winning 74 Wales caps and five more for the Lions.

It has been a stellar career. An undefeated double Lions captain with one series win and one series drawn.

As Wales captain he led his side a record 49 times and guided his country to two World Cup knockout stages.

A semi-final against France in 2011 ended in agonising defeat, compounded by the infamous red card he was shown early in the game for a tip tackle.

That incident could not be further from his glowing reputation as a fantastic ambassador for Wales and his status as one of rugby's most eminent role models.

Warburton was even appointed an OBE in the 2018 New Year's Honours list.

His gentle demeanour is a world away from the fearsome flanker who roamed the rugby pitch, smashing opposition players and often dominating the breakdown battle.

Unbeaten leader of Lions

Warburton will forever be remembered as the two-time Lions captain who led the side to a series victory over Australia in 2013 and a drawn three-Test campaign against New Zealand four years later.

Coach Warren Gatland handed him the accolade over Irish legends Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, as Warburton became the first Welsh Lions tour captain since Phil Bennett in 1977.

Sam Warburton
Sam Warburton was just 24 when he captained the Lions to a series victory in Australia in 2013

Warburton would then become the first Lions skipper to win a series since Martin Johnson in 1997 - and Gatland kept faith four years later for the greatest test of all, against the All Blacks.

Warburton did not start every Test match over the two series, damaging his hamstring in the second Test in Australia and starting as a replacement in the first match against New Zealand before starting the next two.

His commanding presence was instrumental on both tours. Warburton was not only regarded as a foraging flanker, he was also considered a statesmen figure who demanded respect.

That was highlighted by the role he played in politely persuading French referee Romain Poite to only give a scrum rather than a penalty in the dying minutes of the third Test against New Zealand, after Ken Owens was caught accidentally offside.

This effectively proved the difference between losing and drawing the series. It was also one of his final acts on a rugby field in his last game.

Wales' stalwart

Seventy four caps, a Grand Slam, another Six Nations title and captaining his country at two World Cups. Not bad for the boy from Rhiwbina.

Alongside his twin brother, Ben, who was to become a Cardiff Blues physio, Warburton was identified as a future star through his teenage years at Whitchurch High School.

Sam Warburton and Gareth Bale
Sam Warburton and Gareth Bale went to the same school, Whitchurch High School

The school nurtured a golden generation of sporting talent, with Warburton sharing classrooms and playing fields with Real Madrid football forward Gareth Bale and Olympic gold medal cyclist Geraint Thomas.

Warburton's international career started in the 2009 summer Test against the United States in Chicago, just a couple of months after his professional debut for Cardiff Blues.

He featured in the Six Nations the following year before being named captain for the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand.

At that global tournament, Warburton epitomised the new-look, no-fear Wales as he guided Gatland's side to the semi-final against France before disaster struck at Eden Park.

Warburton's first-half tip tackle on Vincent Clerc was penalised by a red card from Irish referee Alain Rolland and 14-man Wales went on to lose 9-8.

Many would have been vilified for this incident but Warburton's standing ensured he came home with his reputation intact, and he led Wales to the 2012 Grand Slam in style.

Warburton played a part in the 2013 Six Nations triumph, most notably with a barnstorming performance in the 30-3 deciding win against England.

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Former Wales flanker Martyn Williams pays tribute to retiring Lions captain Sam Warburton

This was achieved alongside Justin Tipuric, with whom he has shared a friendly rivalry with over the past six years. Among Wales fans there were 'Justin' and 'Sam' camps when it came to the number seven shirt.

Another World Cup as captain followed for Warburton, with Wales bowing out in the 2015 quarter-finals against South Africa.

There was no more silverware, and Warburton's last appearance in a Wales shirt came in a Six Nations defeat against France in March 2017.

After being the only real candidate to succeed Martyn Williams, Warburton leaves a legacy of several contenders to replace him at seven - Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Ellis Jenkins and James Davies.

Captain fantastic at age 22

Gatland sprang a huge surprise just before the 2011 World Cup when he announced an inexperienced 22-year-old Cardiff Blues flanker was going to be his long-term captain.

Warburton admitted he was more surprised than anyone as he became Wales' second youngest skipper after Sir Gareth Edwards.

Not renowned for shouting and screaming, Warburton's leadership style was based on actions rather than words as he encouraged his players to follow his lead.

The bare statistics of two Lions tours, two World Cups and 49 times leading his nation show how effective he was in that role.

For the Lions, the decision was unequivocal. Warburton was Gatland's Lions man and that was backed up with remarkable results as he joined illustrious names such as Johnson, John Dawes and Willie John McBride to have led the Lions to victory.

Sam Warburton
Sam Warburton made 11 appearances in two World Cups and was the youngest captain aged 22 to lead his nation in the 2011 tournament.

After all, he emulated England World Cup-winning skipper Johnson in captaining the Lions on two separate tours and was unbeaten as a series skipper on those trips.

It was not all plain sailing though, especially in his own country. You sensed sometimes it could be a burden as well as an honour as he coped in the most high-profile position in Welsh sport.

In the 2013 Six Nations caretaker coach Rob Howley chose Ryan Jones and Gethin Jenkins to lead Wales, allowing Warburton to concentrate on recovering from injury and returning to top form.

It was a decision Warburton always insisted he was involved in and comfortable with but caused a stir. Alun Wyn Jones eventually replaced Warburton as permanent Wales captain in 2017.

Injury Blues

Warburton has been a one-region man since making his debut in April 2009.

He created history in September 2014 when he became the first player to sign a dual contract with the Welsh Rugby Union and the Blues.

The only silverware he won with his home-town side was as a replacement in the 2010 Amlin Cup triumph against Toulon in Marseille.

Indeed, if anybody suffered from the modern rugby injuries curse it was Warburton.

His unselfish, all-action attitude and willingness to put his head in where it hurt contributed to time on the sidelines.

Sometimes he could not finish international series or tournaments and was regularly photographed having to lift trophies with one hand.

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Captain Sam Warburton reflects on the British and Irish Lions' drawn Test series in New Zealand.

Warburton portrayed a powerful, physical presence but his muscular frame also broke down.

His injury list is extensive: hamstring, shoulder, ankle, knee, jaw, fingers, dead legs and concussion.

Warburton's final two problems led to neck and knee surgery, and prompted him to take a sabbatical from the 2017-18 season, with the intention to return for this campaign.

After initially returning to pre-season training, Warburton now accepts he cannot maintain his own high standards and made the reluctant decision to retire.

With a possible third World Cup looming on the horizon in Japan in 2019 it was not a decision made lightly, but it was one step too far.

But as he ends his glittering career Warburton's record as a Test match animal on the big stage for Wales and the Lions can never be questioned, nor his status as one of rugby's most eminent role models.

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