The news of a 29-year-old retiring in any walk of life would generally come as a shock to most.
Even in sporting circles, common wisdom generally dictates that careers for most span into their 30s and even beyond.
However, in the case of Sam Warburton, there was a saddening air of inevitability surrounding his decision to call time on his rugby playing days.
The Welsh back-row has been dogged throughout his career with a catalogue of injuries so long it would make a stuntman wince.
Just a cursory glance shows everything from knee and ankle damage, hamstring issues in both legs, a broken jaw, fractured cheekbone, dislocated shoulder, nerve damage, stingers – all this in less than ten years, and we are only scratching the surface.
Then you come on to hot topics the game is still coming to terms with – concussion and neck injuries.
While head injuries are at the forefront of player safety conversation, Warburton managed to come away from the game relatively unscathed in that regard – with the only notable occurrence coming in a clash with England back in 2016. What has really ravaged the Cardiff Blues man is a persistent neck issue, that has required surgery on more than one occasion.
Rugby is probably leading the way in terms of head injury protocols. Awareness on the field from players, officials and medical staff is excellent, and the return-to-play protocols ensure those affected are not put back in the firing line before they are fit and well to do so.
Neck injuries are a different matter – but could have even more catastrophic consequences for those involved. There have been clampdowns on contact around the head and neck area in the tackle, but it’s on the ground where Warburton was most at risk.
The 74-times capped openside was a trailblazer when it comes to flank play in the northern hemisphere. He was a new breed of professional, who would eat, sleep and breathe rugby, shunning everything except what would go into making him the very best player possible.
And sadly this comes at a cost.
Warburton’s muscularity is more akin to that of a racehorse than it is a human. A superbly, some may say overly, developed muscular structure meant his frame carried 5 to 6kg in weight more than he would normally be comfortable with. Rugby these days is a land of the giants, and particularly in the forwards, only the biggest and strongest survive.
This strength that Warburton held allowed him to get into positions others couldn’t in the ruck. His low body position would allow for the scavenging he built his career on but with that came a huge level of openness to hits in the clear out, with the neck and shoulder areas being particularly susceptible.
It is one of rugby’s great cliches to put the ‘body on the line’, but this was Warburton’s modus operandi. Rugby is termed a contact sport but that’s nonsense. It’s a collision sport, with the science in place to back that up. Lab testing has shown these hits can be similar in velocity to being hit by a car, time and time again.
For the paying public these collisions are the epitome of beautiful destruction. Thoroughbreds taking part in the ultimate test of physical domination. For the combatants the toll of their toil is stark. Sadly it’s only truly brought to widespread public consumption when a career is cut short as with Warburton.
The question to ask now has to be: is this the norm? Are careers destined to be a decade or less? Is that what we want the game to be?
If the size and strength of players remain, the answer to the above is an unequivocal ‘yes’. And there is little the authorities can do about that. Their fear is continued law changes will only serve to dilute the game people love, and that’s a more than valid argument.
For things to change there would need to be a complete mentality shift in the way the game is played, but even that is a flawed argument. People hark back to the days of smaller players, a faster game, with more emphasis on handling than collision. However in today’s professional era players have been honed into weapons: they are faster, often more nimble, and have the handling skills of the past, but packed as 100kg plus wrecking machines.
This is rugby in 2018. The dangers are very real and will seemingly not go away. That is what this beloved sport has become and while we must continue to do all we can to protect player welfare there has to be the realisation that injury levels are down to an evolutionary change, that is now almost impossible to reverse.
Sam Warburton has retired from professional rugby at the age of 29.
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.
The announcement was made jointly by the Welsh Rugby Union and Warburton’s regional team Cardiff Blues.
Warburton said: “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.”
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) July 18, 2018
Australian Men’s Sevens coach Tim Walsh has named a settled squad with Lewis Holland set to lead the side at AT&T Park in San Francisco.
Henry Hutchison will cap his return to the Sevens program with a RWC Sevens appearance while Liam McNamara has earned himself a berth in the side following an impressive showing in Australia’s last leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Paris.
The Australian Women’s side, and Olympic Champions, will again be co-captained by Shannon Parry and Sharni Williams, with the latter overcoming an ankle injury that has ruled her out since the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
The Australian Women, who were recently crowned the 2017/18 World Rugby Sevens Series champions, have named their strongest possible squad with only Dominique du Toit unavailable because of a collarbone injury.
Both the Men’s and Women’s sides finished fifth at the World Cup in Russia five years ago but the Women have tasted World Cup Sevens success before, when they lifted the trophy in 2009 at the inaugural Women’s event in Dubai.
The Australian Men have featured at all six of the previous Rugby World Cup Sevens, having finished second on two occasions (1993, 2001) and third in 2005.
Australian Women’s Sevens squad for the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 (in alphabetical order):
Lauren Brown*, 3 caps, QLD and Griffith University
Charlotte Caslick, 29 caps, QLD and Bond University
Emilee Cherry, 32 caps, QLD and University of Queensland
Ellia Green*, 21 caps, VIC and University of Tasmania
Demi Hayes*, 8 caps, QLD and Griffith University
Page McGregor*, 3 caps, NSW and Macquarie University
Yasmin Meakes*, 3 caps, ACT and University of Canberra
Shannon Parry (c), 31 caps, QLD and Griffith University
Evania Pelite*, 20 caps, QLD and University of Adelaide
Alicia Quirk*, 26 caps, NSW and University of New England
Cassie Staples*, 7 caps, NSW and University of Canberra
Emma Tonegato*, 24 caps, NSW and University of Adelaide
Sharni Williams (c), 27 caps, ACT and University of Canberra
*Rugby World Cup Sevens debut
Australian Women’s coach John Manenti said: “Obviously being knockout, it’s really hard to plan. You can have any number of teams depending on how you go and how they go.
“You can’t buy experience and the fact that most of the squad have been through it and done it over the years, and more recently in Paris last month, that will put them in good stead.
“There is sure to be close games in the World Cup and I think experience will help us through that when they come,” Manenti said.
Australian Women’s Sevens fixture at AT&T Park, San Francisco on Saturday 21 July:
Australia v Papua New Guinea at 4:28am AEST
If Australia wins its first clash against Papua New Guinea, they will progress through to the top eight playoff.
Australian Men’s Sevens squad for the Rugby World Cup Sevens 2018 (in alphabetical order):
Lachlan Anderson*, 17 caps, Eastwood NSW
Tim Anstee*, 20 caps, Eastwood NSW
Lewis Holland (c), 40 caps, Queanbeyan
Henry Hutchison*, 17 caps, Randwick NSW
Boyd Killingworth*, 19 caps, Warringah NSW
Maurice Longbottom*, 8 caps, Lloyd McDermott Rugby Development Team
Tom Lucas*, 27 caps, Sunnybank QLD
Liam McNamara*, 8 caps, Sunnybank QLD
Sam Myers*, 37 caps, Norths NSW
Ben O’Donnell*, 10 caps, Randwick NSW
Jesse Parahi, 44 caps, Norths NSW
John Porch*, 19 caps, Norths NSW
Brandon Quinn*, 9 caps, Gordon NSW
*Rugby World Cup Sevens debut
Australian Men’s coach Tim Walsh said: “Every game is a battle for the right to compete to be the world’s best. From the outset, every game has a real pressure about it and so it’s all about embracing and owning those key moments.
“The format is different and being adaptive and agile is the environment of international Sevens. Teams will be well equipped and prepared in anticipation for this prestigious event. There has to be a winner and loser and potentially, every moment of every game could be the difference.
“We are used to playing six games over two days and not four games over three days, so in order to replicate the Rugby World Cup format we have adjusted our training and strategies to assist with our mental preparation. More so than ever our ‘Process driven and Performance based’ thinking, is relevant.
“Liam (McNamara) has had a tough run with injuries over the last while but really came back strong in Paris last month to force my hand. He’s a great ball player with awareness, time and composure so I’m looking forward to seeing him play to his potential,” Walsh said.
Australian Men’s Sevens fixture at AT&T Park, San Francisco on Saturday 21 July:
Australia v Winner M3 (France/Jamaica) at 12:47pm AEST
If Australia wins its first clash, they will progress through to the top eight playoff.
For the full RWC Sevens fixtures, please click HERE.