Welsh star and former Lions captain Sam Warburton forced into retirement at 29
British and Irish Lions captain Sam Warburton has retired from rugby union at the age of 29, a joint statement from the Welsh Rugby Union and Cardiff Blues has announced.
The former Wales skipper, who captained the British and Irish Lions on tours to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand last summer, underwent neck and knee surgery last year and has not played for 12 months.
Following the series in New Zealand, Warburton underwent neck surgery on an ongoing injury followed by proactive knee surgery earlier this year. Since trying to return to full fitness Warburton has been unable to reach the heights he desires and has made the decision to retire.
The announcement was made jointly by the Welsh Rugby Union and Warburton's regional team Cardiff Blues.
"Unfortunately, after a long period of rest and rehabilitation the decision to retire from rugby has been made with my health and wellbeing as a priority as my body is unable to give me back what I had hope for on my return to training," he said.
"I cannot thank the Welsh Rugby Union and Cardiff Blues enough, who have gone beyond the call of duty, in providing the support I received to help me get back on the field, for which I will be forever grateful.
"Since I first played aged 10 at Llanishen Fach Primary School, then Whitchurch High School and Rhiwbina Juniors RFC, I always dreamed of playing for my hometown club the Cardiff Blues, Wales and the British and Irish Lions. To look back on my career, I'm extremely proud of what I managed to achieve.
"There are so many people who helped me along the way from schoolteachers, coaches, friends and family. I thank you so much for supporting my dreams and aspirations. I hope they too can take some pride from my career.
"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.
"Countless people work behind the scenes in professional rugby but I would like to thank to the fantastic medical teams at both WRU and Cardiff Blues who have looked after me throughout my career.
"To my amazing wife Rachel and my close family and friends who have endured the emotional rollercoaster of playing professional rugby, I am so lucky to have such a fantastic support network and loving family to help me get through all the testing times.
"Lastly, to all the many fans, with whom I've shared some fantastic memories with, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for all your support. From providing a random hug in a supermarket, or simply offering words of support and encouragement, to hearing a cheer after my name was announced at the national stadium, you are what makes playing professional rugby so special and such a privilege. It's been an absolute pleasure to represent you all and an honour I'll sorely miss.
"As one chapter finishes, another begins, which I'll enter with the same level of passion and determination as the last."
Warburton emulated England World Cup-winning skipper Martin Johnson in captaining the Lions on two separate tours.
Under his leadership, the Lions claimed a first Test series victory for 16 years when they beat Australia, and then drew the series against New Zealand a year ago.
He also steered Wales to the 2011 World Cup semi-finals - he was controversially sent off in the last-four clash against France - with Gatland appointing him as Wales skipper and Lions leader, after heading up the Australia and New Zealand tours as coach.
Gatland said: "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 demeanor 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.
"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. The New Zealand media were mightily impressed by him, and rightly so.
"I hope he can take the time to reflect on a magnificent career and I hope he gets as much pleasure from whatever he does next as he has brought to the people of Wales and the wider rugby public."
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) July 18, 2018
— Brian Moore (@brianmoore666) July 18, 2018
Sad to hear of Sam Warburton's retirement but he can look back with immense pride on his career.
— British & Irish Lions (@lionsofficial) July 18, 2018
— Leinster Rugby (@leinsterrugby) July 18, 2018
— Ospreys (@ospreys) July 18, 2018
— Rúaidhrí O'Connor (@RuaidhriOC) July 18, 2018
Another young man gone. Sam Warburton packed some amount into a great career but at 29 he should have much more to give. Seems like too many players aren't making it to 30 these days
WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips paid tribute to Warburton, stating: "Sam has left the jersey in a better place, which is the goal I know most, if not all, Welsh players set themselves.
"The way that Sam has conducted himself as Wales and Lions captain, on and off the pitch, has been exemplary.
"Even the manner in which he has made this extraordinarily tough decision demonstrates the quality of leader he has become.
"Sam has had a remarkable influence on the pitch for Wales, and I suspect will have a remarkable influence off the pitch for many years to come."
More to follow