Wales legends give insight into ‘class act’ Warburton

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly from talking to team-mates of Sam Warburton is that the Wales talisman was a class act both on and off the pitch.

One thing that becomes obvious very quickly from talking to team-mates of Sam Warburton is that the Wales talisman was a class act both on and off the pitch.

Tributes have poured in for the Cardiff Blues flanker, capped 74 times by his country, ever since he announced his retirement from professional rugby at the age of 29 this week.

And among those who have heaped praise on the two-time British and Irish Lions captain are former Wales internationals, Martyn Williams and Lee Byrne.

We spoke exclusively to both about the back-rower as they provided an insight into why Warburton will go down as one of the all-time greats of Welsh rugby.

Destined to be a superstar

As the man who was supplanted by the then 22-year-old in the Wales team, no one is more aware of the qualities of Warburton than legendary openside Martyn Williams.

Williams, who won 100 caps for his country, was captain at Cardiff Blues when Warburton first stepped up from the academy and started professional training.

And while Warburton’s incredible physique immediately stood out to Williams, he admitted his character impressed him more than anything else.

“He came through the academy and the biggest compliment you can give Sam is that he is exactly the same person now as what he was back then,” he said.

“He was incredibly humble, like a sponge and just respectful. Some of the younger players who come through the academies can be a little bit too sure of themselves, but Sam wasn’t like that and he just wanted to learn from the senior players.

“He was so impressive on and off the field, how he trained, how he looked after himself, and you knew from day one – there are certain players you look at and you just know – you knew injury-permitting, he was going to be a superstar.

“It’s easy to say that in hindsight, but I can guarantee you back then everybody in the Blues knew that he was going to be a special player.”

On his mental strength

Williams added: “When you look at his CV you think it’s been smooth sailing, but it’s been far from that and he’s been questioned and doubted over whether he should be playing seven.

“But he always bounces back and he always in the big, big games pulls off huge performances, so it is absolutely the measure of the man how mentally strong he is.

“After all he’s been through, with injuries and to keep coming back and getting himself up to full fitness – it’s been one step too far this time, but I can’t speak highly enough of him.

“He set the example, not necessarily with his words, but by his actions on and off the field and how he looked after himself, how he spoke to media, referees.

“I just think he’s such a role model in Wales and knowing him myself, he’s exactly that way, he’s just a class act and that’s why he’s so fondly thought of.”

Preparation second to none

Former Wales full-back Lee Byrne played alongside Warburton as he began to break into the national side around the 2010 Six Nations Championship.

But the 38-year-old, who won 46 caps for his country, was aware of the up-and-coming flanker around two years beforehand and said he was blown away by his preparation.

“Sam was always around the camp from 2008,” explained Byrne. “Preparation-wise, I haven’t seen anyone prepare for games like he did mentally and physically.

“What he went on to achieve in the game came through in the way he prepared and looked after himself. I think he was destined to get to the top and that’s exactly what he did.

“He would step away from the training field and work with the coaches a lot. We can see what a great physical specimen he is but on the mental side he was so strong and worked so hard on it.

“His preparation was second-to-none. He was quite a quiet lad around the group but when it came to training, he was a great leader.”

Leadership potential evident

“I think from the moment he stepped into the dressing room it was clear he was captaincy material,” Byrne added. “Warren Gatland is great at identifying natural leaders and Sam was definitely one of them from an early age.

“He captained Wales through the age-groups but stepping into senior rugby is obviously totally different. Warren identified that early and Sam has rightly acknowledged the role he played in his career.

“Gatland rarely makes a wrong decision and he put his faith in Sam – he’s his go-to man and he never let him down.

“Sam is very reserved off the field. He’s someone you just want in your team. He does his talking on the field and in the changing room.

“He doesn’t necessarily do that off the field and that’s all credit to him. I think his professionalism off the field was why he was made a leader and is an example for us all. He’s definitely the biggest and best person to look up to if you’re a Welsh rugby player, really.”


With a Grand Slam and another Six Nations title under his belt with Wales, Warburton’s standing in the annals of the Championship has already been assured.

But Williams has picked out three particular games that stand out in his mind when he thinks about watching Warburton go about his business in the Six Nations over the years.

England 12 Wales 19 – Twickenham, 2012

“He’s had so many highlights but the one thing that really stood out, a tackle against Manu Tuilagi up in England in the 2012 game when Wales just hung on to win,” he said.

“It was an incredible tackle. Manu Tuilagi five metres out, you’re putting your house on him to score, but it wasn’t one of those massive hits that makes the highlight reels.

“It was just the decision making on how to tackle him and then to have the ability to bring him down one metre short of the line with what was ultimately a match-winning tackle.

“That would be the one highlight watching him that just summed him up really as defensively he was just an absolute animal.”

Wales 30 England 3 – Millennium Stadium, 2013

“The Grand Slam is obviously up there for him, but the game against England in particular – the 30-3 one where Sam, Tipuric and Faletau were sensational as a back row.

“I think that he had six on his back that day, but the physicality of him on that day was incredible and England just couldn’t cope with him.”

Scotland 18 Wales 28 – Murrayfield, 2013

“One other game in particular also stands out for me, which was up in Scotland just before the 2013 Lions tour where everybody was writing him off.

“People were saying he shouldn’t go on the Lions tour, let alone be captain, and there was a lot of pressure on his shoulders.

“But he went up there and he was man of the match up in Murrayfield and I just think those are the games that really showed what he could do as a player.

“I remember he was wearing a head guard. “He was absolutely superb that day and he cemented his spot, so when it comes to the Six Nations those three are right up there for me.”