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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