Life after Rugby: Sam Warburton

Date published: March 12 2019

Our series continues as we look back at the lasting memories a rugby player has and what has followed since. Up next, it is former Wales and British & Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton.

As Alun Wyn Jones leads Wales out against Ireland on Saturday, there will be one particular player watching who has relatively recent experience of skippering the Welsh in a Grand Slam decider.

Warburton was bestowed the honour of captaincy at the age of 22 and led them to a World Cup semi-final in 2011 before the flanker’s sending off hindered their chances as they succumbed to France in the last-four.

Redemption came a few months later, however, as the back-row starred in a superb Six Nations campaign that saw them claim the title. In fact, 2012 was the last time they had a perfect record in the competition but that could well change in 2019.

The ex-Cardiff Blues man was crucial to their success seven years ago, making some defining interventions, including one of the great tackles when he scythed down England powerhouse centre Manu Tuilagi inches from the line.

That helped Warren Gatland’s men to a 19-12 win over arch rivals England and they duly finished the job at home to France, beating Les Bleus 16-9.

After a long wait for another shot at a Grand Slam, following the dominance of the Red Rose and Ireland over recent seasons, Jones is now charged with the task of inspiring the side.

Perhaps more emotional and talkative than Warburton, the second-row leads in a slightly way to the 30-year-old, but the ex-back-row believes that the role of the skipper has changed over the years.

He told Planet Rugby in an exclusive interview: “For pre-match speeches, what do you say? A lot of it’s tactical and technical these days. When everybody’s really emotional pre kick-off, it’s not about how hard you blitz someone, it’s three things which are the most important to win this game; you’ve got to make sure you reiterate those points.

“When it gets to the final minutes of games, that’s where the All Blacks think they’re the best because they have the best level of composure under that extreme fatigue. You’ve got to make sure that information is still on the table when you’re in the 75th minute.

“When you do fitness, they always blast you so you’re so fatigued. They’ll then ask you to do a skill drill and the chance of success is much less because, to be able to think under that fatigue, it’s the hardest challenge at that top level.”

Warburton will no doubt have a yearning to be involved when the teams step out in front of the vociferous crowd at the Principality Stadium on Saturday, moments every former top level player misses, but the former Welsh captain doesn’t regret his decision to retire.

“I don’t struggle with it but I do miss that elite environment,” he said. “There are certain games that I’ve watched this season where you see teams have big wins, particularly the Blues or Wales, and you miss that.

“But what I don’t forget is how hard it is to get there and that’s what a lot of ex-pros do. They remember all the great times but they quickly forget the hard bits it took to get there.

“I miss it but would you want to put your body through that to get to that point again? I would say I can’t. If I was 24 or 25 in this position, I would be gutted, but I’m 30 now and my body’s given me as much as it can give me.

“I always say this, and it sounds a bit spoiled, but if I couldn’t be number one…I don’t want to be a second or third choice player.”

It was in July 2018 that the two-time British and Irish Lions skipper announced his retirement and the well-wishers were numerous. In both hemispheres, everyone has great respect for a man who achieved so much and did it with such a self-effacing manner.

That unassuming approach has extended into his post-rugby career. While understandably preferring to spend some time with the family, having forgone some of those activities due to the commitment of training, playing and touring, Warburton has also started to give back to the sport.

The 30-year-old has taken an ambassadorial role with the Welsh Rugby Union, as well as doing punditry with BT Sport and for the BBC during the current Six Nations, but Warburton is also looking further afield.

“I do some ambassadorial stuff for the WRU, as well as the punditry,” he said. “I have my own little ventures, whether it’s with property, which is completely different to rugby.

“I then have family time, which I prioritise now, as you miss that a bit as a player. At home, a couple of midweek days, I look after the little one and just be a dad, which is nice, so I’m prioritising that more than anything over the next couple of years.

“When they’re off to school I can either go for a career or if the golf sticks…”

In a previous generation, Warburton may have been stuck for ideas as to his post-career choices, yet the sport has progressed in regards to player welfare both on and off the field.

Only on Monday, it was interesting to see English Premiership club Saracens release a statement, which was reacting to a story of potential salary cap breaches, noting their success in helping individuals following retirement.

While not always on Sarries’ scale, the ex-Wales skipper says that plenty of help is on offer for all players when their career finishes.

He added: “It’s much more of a focus area for people involved in the clubs now in comparison to 10 years ago, so everybody has really good advice on career post-rugby.

“There’s a lot more advice out there than there was 10 years ago, so I think people can feel safe. If their kid does go into pro rugby as an 18-year-old, he will come out with something.

“They might not see it now, and I thought the same as a young 20-year-old thinking you’ve got loads of time, but it goes very quickly. I would recommend that for any young player, just to seek that advice.”

Depression and anxiety has afflicted many rugby players after they have finished playing, resulting in clubs, agents and the respective rugby players associations becoming more active in easing that pathway post-career, and Warburton knows the route he wants to take.

“We’ve been planning what I was going to do post-career for quite a few years now,” he explained.

“I knew roughly what I wanted to go into straight away and the WRU were good as well, so they approached me about doing certain roles for them. It’s nice to do them part-time and then in a few years time I will figure out which career path I want to go down a bit more seriously.”

With the success Warburton enjoyed as a player, and the esteem that is already held for him as a pundit, you get the feeling the former Wales captain will excel in whatever he does next.

by Colin Newboult