Six months into his early retirement, Sam Warburton has developed a sense of detachment after the former Wales captain swapped the pitch for the television studio and punditry. Asked about the prospects of the team he led for seven seasons before an array of injuries forced him to end his career at the age of 29, he does not use the first person.
“Wales are looking serious business,” replies Warburton, who made his reputation as a brutally uncompromising openside wing forward and turnover specialist. “After last weekend’s victory over England, I think they are in a great place. They met fire with fire: England came with this massively physical gameplan and it was so impressive when they took that away from them. They have two tough games coming up but the grand slam is on and you have to say now that the World Cup is a realistic target for them.”
Warburton is speaking after a screening of the BBC Wales documentary Full Contact, which takes a personal look at his career, especially his decision to retire a year away from the World Cup in Japan he had hoped to take part in. He estimates that in his nine years as a professional player, he spent three and a half years out injured. He continues to spend six days a week in the gym but he no longer runs because of his knees.
“There has only been a small group of people I talk to before I make a big decision, including my wife, parents, brother and sister,” says Warburton. “We all agreed it was the best thing for me. People ask me if I miss it and I don’t, but I would like to give something back, perhaps mentoring young players. One reason I am excited about what Wales can achieve in the future is the academy system. I was one of the first players to come through it but now players are coming off a conveyor belt. The likes of Aaron Wainwright, Elliot Dee, Dillon Lewis and Ellis Jenkins are going to be around for a couple of World Cups after this year’s.
“The strength in depth is putting pressure on the team and two matches this season have been significant to me. The first was the victory over Tonga, when Wales [with a virtual second team] took them to the cleaners, and the second was the win over Italy in Rome when 10 changes were made from the side which had played the previous week. In the last grand slam year, 2012, there was barely a change made because it was too much of a risk, so to make so many and still win in Rome marked a milestone for me. People said it was an unconvincing performance, but I think it was massive.”
Warburton says one of the hardest parts of retiring was telling Warren Gatland, who had made the flanker Wales captain in 2011 when he was only 22 and not first choice in his position for Cardiff Blues, and later appointed him to lead two Lions tours as well. Gatland will be leaving Wales after the World Cup and has been linked with England, although he would not have endeared himself to the Rugby Football Union in victory last weekend when he asked aloud whether England had become bottlers on the big occasion.
“I don’t think he would coach England, not that he would not enjoy the challenge,” says Warburton. “He is like an honorary Welshman and I could not see it happening. It would really surprise me. Wales have achieved so much with someone who gives players so much belief and I think the Lions will be desperate to get him back on board [for the 2021 tour to South Africa]. They have to keep the spine of their coaching team the same: you need continuity and, anyway, who better is there than Warren?
“I was talking to Ugo Monye this week about Warren’s remark that England were bombers [ie tend to blow up]. My initial thought was that he hoped some England fans would bite on it and he would have a giggle while sitting on his sofa, but I think he deliberately planted a thought in England’s head, clever coach that he is. Wales could play England in the quarter-finals of the World Cup and if that’s happened, his words would be brought straight back up and the pressure would go on the England players.
“England being England, people expect so much. Maybe there is some truth in his statement. It is hard to say yes or no categorically and Wales had lost their last three Six Nations matches against them, but when you look at the three biggest games in the last six years, 2013, 2015 and last weekend, the closest you will get to a title decider outside the final weekend, Wales have come out on top.”
Warburton says the biggest regret in his career was not the red card he received 20 minutes into the 2011 World Cup semi-final against France in Auckland for a dangerous tackle on the wing Vincent Clerc. Despite playing for an hour with 14 men, Wales lost by a point and had the opportunity to win with late kicks.
“I did not realise the tackle was illegal at the time because I had done exactly the same to Ronan O’Gara during the quarter-final against Ireland and got away with it. It was just something out of my control. It is probably the biggest ‘what if’ question but my biggest regret is not playing sevens because I think it would have been fantastic for the development of my career, improving aspects like ball-carrying. The lowest part was watching Owen Williams [the Wales centre who suffered a neck injury playing in Singapore that left him paralysed] go through his injury. Getting sent off was nothing compared to that.”Does he think that as someone so driven (the morning after he was ruled out of the rest of the 2013 Lions tour to Australia by a serious hamstring injury, he was in the gym) he would have been as successful in the amateur era? “Good question. Probably not, as I could not imagine myself going out drinking two or three times a week. I was always focused on being the very best I could be.”