It is apt that the final, enduring image of Sam Warburton’s brilliant career was that of himself and Kieran Read, smilingly as the lifted the trophy together in the pouring Auckland rain, after last year’s epic Lions-All Blacks series.
Warburton’s decision to retire from rugby at the age of 29 has rocked many, but the outpouring of affection and love following the announcement shows the esteem ni which he is held.
Wales’ surprise run to the 2011 World Cup semi-finals captured the imagination, and at the heart of that run was Warburton, captain of one of the proudest rugby nations on Earth, at the grand old age of 22.
Warburton played like a man possessed in every game, as he forced turnovers, topped tackle counts, and dominated the field like a Welshman who’d just been told Brains is inferior to all English beers.
The scandalous red card he received after 18 minutes of the semi-final against France was a grossly unjust way for his World Cup to end, as plenty considered him to be the player of the tournament – yet Sam had arrived, and he would only hit greater heights in the following years.
Captaining Wales to back-to-back Six Nations titles in 2012 (a Grand Slam) and 2013 (including the famous 30-3 win over England, with Warburton at his rampaging best) underscored his leadership qualities.
But it was the 2013 British and Irish Lions series victory over Australia which exposed his inspirational captaincy to a wider audience.
Few have been unanimously popular captains of the Lions – what with the suspicion, sniping, centuries-old rivalries and pettiness a constant backdrop to Home Nations rugby (part of its appeal, I say) – so it speaks volumes of Warburton that barely a bad word is peeped when fans from all of these nations are asked for their opinion on him.
His lack of ego was there for all to see when only able to make the bench in the first Lions Test last year, a scenario where lesser men would have complained bitterly. Yet Sam spoke lucidly, intelligently and without rancour when quizzed about the decision.
The phrase ‘Captain, leader, legend’ was used by Chelsea fans to describe John Terry in his pomp, yet I can’t think of an athlete more deserving of those descriptiors than Warburton.
He is the ultimate ambassador for rugby and all that is great about it. His humble nature, strength of character, unfailing politeness, and fantastic sportsmanship dovetailed beautifully with his game, where only the words ‘monstrous’ and ‘colossal’ do him justice (John Eales’ ironic nickname, ‘Nobody’, would be just as applicable).
Sam Warburton held that trophy up at Eden Park not knowing he had just completed his last ever game of rugby, but he can retire knowing that he always put his body on the line for his beloved Cardiff Blues and Wales, never compromised his ideals, and – most importantly – stayed a bloody good bloke.
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