Sam Warburton's memorable moments for Wales, British & Irish Lions and Cardiff Blues
By Michael Cantillon
Last Updated: 23/07/18 11:37am
Wednesday brought the news that Wales, Cardiff Blues and British & Irish Lions flanker Sam Warburton had retired from rugby at the age of just 29 due to injuries.
Warburton's professional and Test career spanned nine years, during which he achieved more than most rugby players would dream to.
I never in a million years expected this much support. I cannot put into words how much it means to me. Reading all the lovely messages has been genuinely overwhelming. It’s been an emotional 24hrs, but confirms that the rugby family we are in is amazing 😊 pic.twitter.com/W54X0XFYuv— Sam Warburton (@samwarburton_) July 19, 2018
Having gone to school with Real Madrid's four-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale, and Team Sky rider Geraint Thomas at Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, Warburton had a trial with Cardiff City at the age of 14.
From then on, however, he set his sights on a fruitful rugby career.
Here are some of his most memorable moments...
Rugby World Cup history
The time of the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, Warburton had just 17 Test caps, and had only captained his country for the first time two months previously in June against the Barbarians.
Yet when Matthew Rees sustained an injury, the 22-year-old Warburton was chosen to lead his country into the sport's showpiece event.
When he led them out against South Africa in Wellington for Wales' opening Pool match, Warburton became the youngest Rugby World Cup captain in history - a record which still stands.
To go with the bit of history, Warburton put in one of the performances of his career.
Up against a Bok back row of Heinrich Brüssow, Schalk Burger and Pierre Spies, Warburton made a phenomenal six steals and some 23 tackles - nearly a quarter of the total for the whole Wales team (99) - as Warren Gatland's side lost out by just a single point, 17-16.
But Warburton had truly arrived onto the Test arena and the world stage.
That same competition in 2011 played host to another undying image of Warburton, and almost certainly one he wishes had never happened.
Having progressed to the knockout stages behind South Africa, and seen off Ireland 22-10 in the quarter-finals, Wales were paired with France in the semis.
Just 18 minutes into that clash in Auckland, however, Warburton was red carded for a tip tackle on France's Vincent Clerc by referee Alain Rolland.
While an exceptionally harsh and controversial call, the referee was within his rights to send off Warburton by the letter of the law, owing to the fact the flanker lifted Clerc by the legs above the horizontal and then dropped him. Wales would go on to lose 9-8.
Amid outcry from pundits and the rugby fraternity alike, Warburton always kept his counsel, and to his great credit, later came out and said the referee was right.
Nevertheless, Warburton will forever be associated with that semi-final red card. It was an unforgettable moment of sport.
Grand Slam glory & England annihilation
Perhaps the highest point in Warburton's Wales career came during the 2012 Six Nations campaign.
In the first Test fixtures since his World Cup red card, Warburton and Wales picked up a sensational Grand Slam, and did it the hard way by winning in the Aviva Stadium and Twickenham.
Leading as captain, Warburton struggled with injuries throughout the year, but was out on the pitch for his country in the victories against Ireland, England and the Grand Slam-clinching fixture against France in the Millennium Stadium.
That success is the last occasion in which Wales picked up a Grand Slam and the only year in which Warburton claimed the Six Nations' highest prize.
A year later, Wales were champions again - albeit missing out on a Slam after an opening day loss to Ireland in Cardiff - and their final day success over England will live long in the memory for all of a Welsh persuasion.
Facing England at the Millennium on the final weekend, Wales needed to win by at least seven points to take the title, while England were unbeaten and chasing a first Grand Slam for 10 years.
A remarkably deafening rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off was the precursor to Warburton and co plundering 30 points past their visitors.
The final score read 30-3, with Wales picking up back-to-back Championship wins for the first time since 1978 and 1979. No Wales side has picked up any silverware since.
Welsh club rugby history
Two seasons before the 2011 World Cup, Warburton and the Cardiff Blues created history.
A Welsh club had never before - and until May 2018, never since - won a European trophy.
Into the 2009/10 season, the Blues' Heineken Cup campaign ended after the pool stage, in which they finished second to Toulouse and were not one of the two top second-place teams.
That season, however, was the first in which three second-place teams from the Heineken Cup parachuted into the European Challenge Cup, and the Cardiff Blues were one of three teams to qualify.
They crushed Newcastle Falcons 55-20 in the quarter-finals and edged London Wasps 18-15 in the semis, both on the road, to reach the final of the competition where they would face Jonny Wilkinson's Toulon in Marseille.
Wilkinson and All Black Sonny Bill Williams were on form for Toulon, but a Blues side containing Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny edged out a historic 28-21 success at the Stade Velodrome.
Though he didn't start the game, Warburton came on as a sub in the second half and was part of the first Welsh club team ever to pick up a European medal.
Lions captaincy times two
At the end of Wales' successful 2013 campaign, 15 Welshman were named by Warren Gatland for the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia.
And in a tour squad containing the previous two Lions skippers in Paul O'Connell (2009) and Brian O'Driscoll (2005), Warburton, at the age of just 24, was awarded the Lions captaincy.
Warburton played four matches on the tour in total, including wins over the Reds, Waratahs and the victorious first Test, before a serious injury to his left hamstring in the second Test made him unavailable for the decider in Sydney.
He remained in camp, however, and emerged onto the field to lift the trophy after the Lions' third Test 41-16 win - a first Lions series victory since 1997.
Four years later and having lost the Wales captaincy to Alun Wyn Jones, Warburton was perhaps not the favourite to lead the Lions again. But Gatland trusted him once more with the honour of Tour captain, this time to New Zealand.
In doing so, Warburton became just the second man in history to captain the Lions on two tours after Martin Johnson.
Starting from the bench for the first Test defeat after fitness concerns, he returned to start for the second Test victory and remained in the side for the dramatic third Test draw.
Having gone done to New Zealand as massive underdogs, the tour ended with Warburton holding one side of a cup with All Black skipper Kieran Read.
As an unbeaten Lions captain of two tours, Warburton goes down as the only captain to accomplish this and one of the most successful Lions of all time.
That final Test on the 2017 tour to New Zealand proved his last professional appearance.
Neck and knee surgery followed in the coming months as he sat out the whole of the 2017/18 season, before calling time on his career after returning to rehab, saying:
"Unfortunately, after a long period of rest and rehabilitation the decision to retire from rugby has been made with my health and well-being as a priority as my body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training."
Warburton bows out early but not unfulfilled. He goes down as a Lions legend, a Wales stalwart.
Two Six Nations titles, one Grand Slam, one Triple Crown, two unbeaten Lions tours, two Lions tour captaincies, Wales captain, a Challenge Cup, a World Cup semi-final, records broken, history made and an OBE to boot. He didn't do too badly...