Sam Warburton, Wales's record-breaking captain and one of the most successful figures in the history of the Lions, has been forced to retire through injury at the relatively early age of 29.

Warburton has not played since leading the Lions to a drawn series against the All Blacks a year ago and has realised since resuming training this summer that the neck and knee injuries which caused him to sit out the entire 2017-18 season were too chronic to allow him to reach the peaks of conditioning that he needed to perform at his customary elite level.

"My body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training," said Warburton.

Such was the outpouring of tributes paid him, it was no surprise to hear calls for him not to be lost to Welsh rugby even if he will never pulling on the red jersey that he was worn with such distinction (74 caps, 49 of them as captain) again.

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Cardiff Blues chief executive, Richard Holland, intends to sit down with Warburton, who has only ever been a one-club man, to see 'how he can remain part of the organisation.' Wales Secretary of State, Alun Cairns, called Warburton 'the ultimate model Welsh rugby player,' while his friend from days at Whitchurch HS in Cardiff, Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, was moved to tweet 'congratulations on an incredible career, mate. #welshlegend.'

Warburton has already impressed as a TV pundit and given that he has been held in such esteem for the natural decency of his personality as well as sought-after on the corporate circuit for his well-tested leadership abilities, (two Lions tour as captain) his phone will soon be ringing.

Lions captain Sam Warburton leads his team out before the 3rd and final test match between the All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
Lions captain Sam Warburton leads his team out before the 3rd and final test match between the All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Eden Park, Auckland. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

There is little doubt, too, that he would make a good coach one day for his ability to read the game and interact with referees, notably doing enough to persuade Frenchman, Romain Poite, to reconsider his decision at the end of the final (drawn) Lions test against the All Blacks, awarding a scrum rather than a potentially series-winning penalty to New Zealand.

Whatever unfolds, former Wales' dual code international, Jonathan Davies, warns that Warburton will need a period of readjustment.

"It is difficult when your career comes to a stop abruptly and it will take time for Sam to come to terms with that," Davies told The Daily Telegraph. "Nothing ever replaces the act of playing and that takes some getting used to. But once Sam manages to accept that reality, I'm sure he'll have opportunities. His sporting credentials are second-to-none and he is universally respected."

Warburton's decision to call a premature end to his career is a salutary one for the sport itself as it fights to find the balance between fierce combat on the field and the rights of every player to proper welfare considerations. Warburton fits the gladiatorial image of the modern-day player, relentless in his quest for excellence and unceasingly brave in his presence at the breakdown, but such commitment to the cause comes at a price.

There has not been a season when Warburton has not suffered for his trade, accumulating 20 significant injuries during the course of his 11 years on the front-line, nine of them on international duty since becoming Wales' youngest ever captain in 2011 and taking them into the semi-final of the World Cup that year only to be sent-off against France for a tip-tackle.

It is possible that Warburton could probably have operated at some sort of reduced level but he himself acknowledged the need, finally, to pay heed to his own 'health and well-being.' Given that there is barely a single part of his oft-battered body that has not either been under the surgeon's knife or soothed, if not pummelled, back to prime condition on the physiotherapist's couch, no-one can begrudge Warburton his desire to seek respite from such punishment.

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"Sam has left the jersey in a better place which is the goal I know most, if not all, Welsh players set themselves," said WRU chief executive, Martyn Phillips.

The news is a shock in its timing but not a surprise, only confirming what has been brewing for a while.

"I thank schoolteachers, coaches, friends and family for supporting my dreams and aspirations," said Warburton. "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."

Even though Wales have strength-in-depth in the back-row, Gatland reacted with dismay at the news.

"It is hugely disappointing that Sam has retired from the game," said the Wales head coach. "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. In a test career full of great moments, one in particular sticks in my mind. His captaincy in the third test for the Lions in New Zealand, in a game finely balanced and potentially historic, was exemplary."