At almost every point in the last nine years there have been people in the media, or online, who have been certain that Sam Warburton wasn’t in their best XV for Cardiff Blues, or Wales, or the British and Irish Lions.
In some respects those opinions have been understandable as Warburton has played in what has arguably been the greatest era of back row forwards in the history of rugby union.
He has come up against Martyn Williams, Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins at the Arms Park, against Justin Tipuric, Dan Lydiate, Aaron Shingler and Ross Moriarty in the national team, and against Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander under the guise of the British and Irish Lions.
However, time-and-time again it has been the former Whitchurch High School pupil who has proven himself as the best of the best, both as a player and a leader, with the records and stats speaking for themselves.
106 Cardiff Blues appearances, 74 Wales caps, five Lions tests, youngest captain at a Rugby World Cup, youngest Lions captain, second player ever to captain the Lions on two tours, most successful Lions captain ever, one grand slam winning title, two Six Nations titles and a European Challenge Cup winners medal.
In the immediate aftermath of his retirement announcement, the WRU put up a stats sheet for the man who has captained Wales more times than any other player, and it showed him making almost two turnovers, four carries, eight tackles and 20 clearouts per game on average.
When you consider there will be plenty of times in the 74 caps that he has come on as a replacement or departed the field early, those stats only go to underline what a terrific player he is. Physicality, commitment, intelligence, a never wavering desire to win and the King of the Jackal at a time when Richie McCaw, David Pocock and Sean O’Brien were in the World.
A big game player, he will be remembered for performing in an occasion. The 30-3 win over England to win the Six Nations, or the second test against Australia in 2013 which Clive Woodward described as ‘the most outstanding performance I have ever seen from a Lion’, both spring to mind.
As a player he was ferocious, but as a leader he was different. He had a speaking side to him, but it was always controlled and well thought out, rather than the screaming and shouting we see from some. Instead, Warburton led by example in everything he did, and it’s that trait which made him such a revered captain.
Warren Gatland, the man who made Sam his lieutenant throughout his tenure with Wales and the Lions, said it was the flanker’s ability to recognise good play by his team-mates and calm decision making on the field that convinced him that the captaincy was right, even when Warburton himself doubted the decision.
Perhaps more than his efforts on the field though, is his standing as a man off it, and that is a major reason why Sam Warburton will be remembered as a great captain and representative of the modern game, and particularly a Lions legend.
Playing for the British and Irish Lions is the pinnacle of any player’s career from Wales, England, Scotland or Ireland, and Warburton represented over 125 years of history with such distinction through the way he carried himself in public engagements that nobody could fail to be impressed by him.
Coming home to give a huge kit bag of his gear to a local charity shop without any fanfare sums him up as a human being, and it’s no surprise to see players, pundits, clubs and supporters from around the world wishing Sam good luck in whatever comes next. His standing in the rugby world is almost unrivalled.
Warburton was not without controversy, his red card in the 2011 World Cup semi-final was a major point in the game, there was the central contract issue at the height of Welsh rugby’s civil war, and the stat that he almost played as many Wales games as Cardiff Blues games was brought up often.
For me personally though, I never felt as if Sam did anything to purposely harm Cardiff Blues as a club. Was his signing with Roger Lewis poorly advised and regrettable? Yes it was, but he always put his body on the line for club as well as country, and I was never aware of him feeling anything other than pride at running out in Cardiff Blues colours.
It’s massively unfortunate that he was not able to be apart of the winning side in Bilbao back in May, and that he will now not play an on-field part in what is the beginning of an exciting era at the Arms Park, and with the 2019 Rugby World Cup just a year away.
However, when you look back on the career of Sam Warburton, you can’t help but respect the way he played, the things he achieved and the legacy he leaves. He will go down as one of the greats of some historic teams and in the general rugby world.
There is no doubt that whatever he turns to next, Warburton will be a success, whether it’s on television, away from rugby union, or hopefully in some capacity with Cardiff Blues.
All that’s left to say is thank you, Sam, for allowing us to watch you play over the last 10 years, and leading Cardiff Blues, Wales and the Lions to some great times. It was an honour to see you take the field, and I wish you and your family best wishes for the future. Feel free to reverse your decision any time though!