EXCLUSIVE: Mike Phillips pays tribute to retired former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton

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Sam Warburton (l) and Mike Phillips (top) tackle All Blacks captain Richie McCaw.

I was saddened when I heard the news Sam Warburton had announced his retirement, at the relatively young age of 29.

I remember when Sam first came into the senior Wales squad. As a youngster you could see straight off the bat that he was a true professional.

He’d come through these academies, which was a different way to the way I came through.

Sam was like a new breed of professional, very focused, very driven, just this really sound, good guy, which being a captain and leader has to be one of the most important things, especially in rugby.

You have to come across well to your team-mates and he did that very very well.

As a leader, Sam really grew into it with Wales. He was very young as a captain when he started, but you could see him growing – every team meeting, every situation, every tournament – and we were relatively successful so he just grew into it more and more.

Initially it was a bit of shock when he was made captain because he was so young. There were a lot of senior players in the team and Warren Gatland, the coach, could have gone for other choices.

But Gats clearly saw in Sam some real qualities, which we’d all seen, and he stuck by him and Sam flourished and went on to the Lions as a great leader.

My strongest memory of Sam is being on the field and going through defensive sets after defensive sets.

You’d be up against it, the opposition’s gaining ground – something needs to happen. You need that moment of turnover, you need that change because the attack’s just coming on.

I just remember Sam making those important turnovers at key times and he just kept doing that at important times in games.

That’s a skill in itself and he was very very good on the floor and that had a massive effect on the team and put us in better positions. Coming up with those magic moments and turning the game on its head.

Sam was more of a doer and that’s what people respected.

In rugby you come across players that can talk a good game but then they don’t back it up – and then there’s the ones who just do it. That’s really inspiring and what you want in a leader.

Sam could talk the talk and he could walk the walk. He always led from the front and put his body on the line, which is why I respected him so much.

At the 2011 Rugby World Cup he was playing fantastically and I felt really sorry for him in that semi-final against France, when he got the red card so early on. It was a bit of a bad memory for all of us. It was just unfortunate.

Sam’s early retirement just underlines where rugby is going these days.

It’s all about getting stronger, getting faster –being more efficient, more powerful and constantly, every minute when you are a professional, thinking about the one percent. How can I get more explosive?

All rugby players now are athletes. The collisions are getting bigger and in return with that you are going to get more injuries. You’re seeing now all the concussions coming into that.

It’s because rugby has become so professional and players are doing every little thing they can to gain those one per cents.

Unfortunately there’s injury involved, it’s a contact sport especially for someone like Sam.

He’s on the floor, his body’s twisted everywhere and the hits he had to take have taken their toll. It’s sad for him to retire so young.

But I’m confident Wales have other leadership options.

They’ve got Alun Wyn Jones, Jonathan Davies the centre coming back. You’ve got good leadership skills, also Ken Owens the hooker.

So there’s options there and they’ve got time now. Sam’s given them enough time to get together and choose a new captain before the Rugby World Cup in Japan.

There’s so many options in the back-row as well now, compared with other positions for Wales, it’s our strongest area I think. So the future’s bright really.

With so many senior players coming back, lot of boys rested, if they get it together there is strength in depth and there are players pushing, which is good.

But having said that everybody else is improving as well.

International rugby nowadays there’s not an easy game out there, skills are getting better so Wales need to improve as well, even without Sam.

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Warren Gatland hails Sam Warburton as "one of the best and most respected players" in world rugby

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Sam Warburton (l) and Warren Gatland ahead of the 2017 Lions tours to New Zealand

Warren Gatland has hailed Sam Warburton as “one of the best and most respected players” in world Rugby following his retirement from the game.

Former Wales captain and two-time British and Irish Lions skipper Warburton has quit rugby’s professional arena at the age of 29.

His decision – 14 months before Wales’ Rugby World Cup campaign begins in Japan – comes after he underwent neck and knee operations last year.

Flanker Warburton, who led the Lions on tours to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand last summer, had not played since the drawn third All Blacks Test 12 months ago.

And Gatland, who appointed Warburton as Wales skipper in 2011 and to lead both Lions tours that the New Zealander was head coach of, paid him a glowing tribute.

“He is an outstanding rugby player and he has brought so much to the game, on and off the pitch,” Gatland said.

“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 he should look back on his career with huge pride.”

Warburton’s announcement was released jointly by the Welsh Rugby Union and his 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 well-being as a priority,” said Warburton, “as my body is unable to give me back what I had hoped for on my return to training.”

Warburton won 74 Wales caps and captained his country a record 49 times.

Although injuries hit hard during his career, they did not prevent him establishing a reputation among the world’s best openside flankers, with fearless, critical work at the breakdown area proving his major strength.

He returned to training with the Blues this summer after missing the whole of last season, but has now made the decision to call it a day.

The WRU and Blues statement read: “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.”

Warburton added: “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 am 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 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 emulated England Rugby World Cup-winning skipper Martin Johnson in captaining the Lions on two separate tours, and he never lost a Test series, overcoming Australia 2-1 and then drawing last year’s series against reigning world champions New Zealand.

He also steered Wales to the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-finals – he was controversially sent off in the last-four clash against France – and although Warburton leaves a considerable void in the Wales camp, Gatland can be consoled by an array of openside talent available to him offered by players like Justin Tipuric, James Davies, Josh Navidi and Ellis Jenkins.

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England and Leicester Tigers prop Ellis Genge sidelined till 2019

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Ellis Genge of Leicester Tigers

England and Leicester Tigers prop Ellis Genge is set to be sidelined until the new year as he continues his recovery from a knee injury.

Genge, 23, was hurt during England’s tour of South Africa last month and returned home early from that three-Test trip.

He subsequently underwent surgery, and Leicester head coach Matt O’Connor told the club’s official website: “We’re probably looking at him playing again in the new year at this stage.”

Genge, who has won five caps, suffered a shoulder injury last season that ended his Six Nations hopes.

O’Connor added: “‘Gengey’ has had the operation and everything went well from that point of view.

“He’s well into his rehab work now, and then he will start fitness work and building up to play again.

“But he will miss the first phase of the season, and we’re probably looking at him playing again in the new year at this stage.

“But he’s working hard on his recovery and will be good to go when he comes through that rehab.

“It is obviously very disappointing for him and for us, but I’m sure he will be raring to go once he gets back to full fitness, and we know there’s still a lot to come from him.”

Leicester kick off their Gallagher Premiership season against Exeter on September 1.

England, meanwhile, face Tests against world champions New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Japan in November.

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