British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton has retired from rugby union at the age of 29, admitting defeat in his battle against chronic injury.
Flanker Warburton, who won 74 Wales caps and captained his country a record 49 times, was forced to sit out last season after undergoing knee and neck surgery.
“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 said, picking out Wales coach Warren Gatland for special praise.
“To look back on my career, I’m extremely proud of what I managed to achieve.
“I would like the make special mention of Warren Gatland. Without the faith he had in me and his unwavering support I would never have had the career I was able to pursue.”
Warburton, who spent his entire professional career with Cardiff Blues, making his debut for his hometown region in April 2009 and winning his first cap just two months later, will go down in history as the most successful British and Irish Lions captains of all time.
Last year he became only the second man after ex-England lock Martin Johnson to captain the Lions on two tours as he led the touring team to New Zealand, repeating the honour he first undertook in 2013 in Australia.
Under his leadership the Lions claimed a first Test series victory in 16 years when they beat Australia and four years later in 2017 he once again led the Lions as they earned an historic series draw against double defending world champions New Zealand.
– ‘Hugely disappointing’ –
Wales coach Gatland, who led the Lions on their last tour to New Zealand, added: “It is hugely disappointing that Sam has retired from the game. He is an outstanding rugby player and he has brought so much to the game on and off the pitch.
“His leadership, attitude and demeanour along with his performances have placed Sam up there as one of the best and most respected players in the world. He finishes with a record that he should be extremely proud of and should look back on his career with huge pride.”
The Welsh Rugby Union and Blues issued a joint statement which said: “Since returning to pre-season with Cardiff Blues, it has become clear to Warburton that he wouldn’t be able to return to the high standards he has set throughout his career and has reluctantly made the decision to retire.”
Real Madrid star Gareth Bale, who attended the same Whitchurch High School in Cardiff as Warburton, was quick to tweet his friend a message of support.
“Congratulations on an incredible career mate. Good luck for everything in the future @samwarburton_#welshlegend,” Bale said.
Wales and Lions legend Gareth Edwards added: “It’s been a shock to everyone, perhaps more for him than anyone else.
“I wasn’t expecting it. Am I surprised? The modern game, it is so physical. The hits their bodies take, I think you may see more and more players retiring earlier as the years go on,” Edwards told the BBC.
“Sam has played the game in one way; he puts his head in these dangerous places, he hasn’t been afraid to play the game physically.
“He’ll be a loss to the Blues because he’s a special player and a special captain but the most important thing is that Sam is happy with his decision and that he walks away from the game with everything ok.”
Cycling star Geraint Thomas, another former Whitchurch pupil who took the lead of the Tour de France on Wednesday, said he was stunned by Warburton’s retirement.
“Someone told me at the start of the stage, I was quite surprised actually,” said the Team Sky rider.
“But he’s had an amazing career, captaining the Lions tours undefeated, done what he’s done with Wales as well. Massive respect to him and I wish him well in whatever he takes on now.”