– Interview by Jake Bambrough, Qatar
At just 22, Sam Warburton became Wales’s youngest World Cup captain in 2011, leading out his national team at the tournament just three friendly games after donning the armband. However, with a characteristically relaxed and professional attitude the young flanker took it in his stride, spearheading the Dragons’ admirable charge to the semi-final.
A firm believer that the best leaders perform on the pitch, he won many plaudits for his performances and if it weren’t for his red card against France, many thought he could have taken his team all the way.
Despite an injury-troubled 2012 season, Warburton was a key player in Wales’s Grand Slam victory in the Six Nations. The following year the Welsh team retained the championship for the first time since 1976.
Just weeks later, Warburton became the youngest man to lead the British and Irish Lions at 24. The Lions beat Australia in their first test, and narrowly lost the second. Despite having to go off injured during the game, Warburton’s effort earned him man of the match in what former England coach Sir Clive Woodward called the most outstanding performance he had ever seen from a Lion.
The 2015 World Cup saw Wales make it out of a tough pool at the expense of the English hosts, only to be thwarted by South Africa in the quarter-final, but at 27, we can be sure there is more to come from Sam Warburton.
Rugby is a game with a lot of contact and a high injury rate, can you tell us a bit about common injuries in rugby?
My brother is a physiotherapist and we talk quite often about this. In some sports, such as football, you get a lot specific injuries like knees and ankles, but in rugby you pretty much cover everything. I think shoulders are probably the most common due to the amount of contact, but I think every player in the squad – or if not 90% of them – will have undergone some sort of surgical procedure; ankles, knees and shoulders being the main three. I’ve had knee operation and two shoulder operations, which is pretty common for a player in my position. It’s just part and parcel of playing professional rugby.
Are there any injuries that rugby players fear in particular?
The ones I fear are not so much dislocated shoulders or knee cartilage injuries or things like that. I’ve heard stories of horrendous facial injuries – mouth, teeth, eyes, that sort of thing – someone who lost their sight playing rugby. They are the things I worry about more, shoulders and knees can be fixed, so I think eye and mouth injuries would worry me the most.
Do you do any specific injury prevention training?
Our head of medical, Prav Mathema, is really good at getting the boys doing ‘prehab’ training every single day. So for someone like myself, with a history of shoulder problems, I do 20 minutes of shoulder rehab at the end of training every day, just to make sure, because I’ve had two surgeries and nerve damage. So prehab and rehab is probably one of the most important aspects of training. People often think of rugby training as weight training, but the physio side of things is just as important.
You’ve had a few injuries that have kept you out of big games. Which was the worst for you?
Probably the third test in the Lions series against Australia. It was 1-1 in the series and I tore my hamstring quite significantly in the second game. I was out for 3 months after that and I missed the final test, which was the winning test for us and that was probably the most difficult match I’ve had to watch from the side-lines.
Concussion is getting a lot of attention at the moment, with the IRB updating their head injury assessment criteria last year. How have these changes affected players?
I don’t think they have really affected the players much. There are a lot more and much stricter protocols now than there were even 5 years ago. I remember being concussed and playing the game the week after. But players don’t really think about concussions, it’s the last thing you are thinking, even in a contact sport. I would never go into a game thinking ‘what if I get concussed during this match?’ It’s something you just have to try and completely ignore. It’s something the medical staff deal with, but as players you can’t really be thinking about concussions or head injuries, you have to make sure you go out there and commit yourself to the game 100%.
What do they think of the new procedures now you have to take longer out after a concussion?
I think players feel safer. I’ve seen a player have to retire through concussion, so players now know that if they do suffer a concussion they are going to be looked after properly and not have to end up – in a worst case scenario – retiring if they play again and have another bang on the head after it not being managed properly. The nice thing is you know you will be treated properly by the medical staff and you won’t go back on the pitch until you are 100% fit and safe to do so.
The Saracens have trialled the xPatch to measure impacts to the head. Do you think these technologies have a place in the future of rugby?
I’m not sure really. The GPS system we use contains a little ball bearing which can measure the impact your body is going through. But even though you have all these devices that can tell you the amount of impact, you’re not going to stop those impacts – whatever level you are playing at. At international level the game is very tough and whatever technology there is, the impacts are still going to happen. Prevention training is probably the best way to be safe about it, and that is something we do now in training, a lot of neck prehab to strengthen the muscles, which apparently can help with concussions. So I think prevention is the best way.
What is your recovery process after a game?
If it is a game for Wales and we are at the Millenium Stadium we will have an ice bath straight after the match. We drink a large protein and fruit smoothie, which is high in antioxidants. We put recovery skins on straight away. And personally, I would always ask for a sleeping tablet. Before the game we are taking on quite a large amount of caffeine and it makes it difficult to sleep after the game, so I would ask for a sleeping tablet, a couple of paracetemols and some zinc and magnesium tablets too. I find sleep is the best form of recovery. The following day we might do some cryotherapy or keep active, even if it is something very light like walking the dog.
Do you find it difficult to sleep after a game?
Yes, club games are generally a 7.30pm kick off and even some of the international games are late. We take a lot of caffeine before matches and it takes quite a few hours to come down off that, so most of the boys will have to take sleeping tablets after the game to make sure they can get a good night’s sleep.
Do you follow any specific nutrition programme, how important do you think nutrition is for rugby players?
Not really, I’ve had nutritional advice since I was about 15 years old, so I know now what to eat and what not to eat. But we do have nutritionists in the squad who speak to some of the guys. Some players have to reach their targets sooner than others and they might struggle with their bodyweight, whether they need to gain or lose weight, so we have nutritionists available, but personally, I have been educated on that for the last 10 years and I feel I know my body now.
You were also a keen footballer as a youngster and played with Gareth Bale at school. These days we see kids focusing on one sport at earlier and earlier ages, do you think it’s important to play a variety of sports as a child?
Definitely. I think it is important to learn all the fundamental motor skills, jumping, catching, passing, especially for a sport like rugby which is so diverse. You need handling skills, you need to be quick on your feet, to be able to sidestep, jump, everything – the game involves so many skills. The more sports you play as a youngster, the more skills you have to transfer when you specialise at an older age.
You were only 22 and Wales’ second youngest captain (behind only Gareth Edwards) when you were given the armband, did you find the role challenging at first?
Yes, I did find it really tough. I wasn’t really keen on doing it at first, but I was sort of talked into it and I had a lot of support from the management and the players. Now 4 years down the line I really enjoy the role. But it was difficult to start with when I was 22 and there were guys 13 years my senior in the same team as me, but yeah I got used to it and now I find it really enjoyable.
You have also captained the British and Irish Lions, what do you think makes a good captain?
Every captain is different and I don’t try to be like someone else, I always just try to be my own person. I’ve played under captains who are completely different to each other and I don’t think there’s really a ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to leadership. It depends on your characteristics, but the first priority and something you do have to make sure you do, is play well on the field, that has got to be your number one priority.
In a sport where dealing with pain is par for the course, there must be a temptation to try and get back on the pitch as soon as possible after an injury and put up with any discomfort. How do the medical team advise players on this?
I think that is actually one of the things the medical staff find most difficult. When you have a player who has gone down in an international game, they need to try to assess the player, who might have a significant injury, but the player might try to conceal it because he wants to carry on playing. Obviously if it is very bad he will have to come off, but for the medical team that is the hardest decision they have to make, deciding if the player is seriously injured or if he can continue to play. Players will very rarely pull themselves off the pitch, they worry about losing their spot or letting their team, themselves or their family down, so they try to stay on. But if its best for the team then you have to come off, it has happened to me, I will pull myself off if I know it would affect the team’s performance.
Who do you think should have final say – the player or coach or the doctor?
The medical staff should have the final say, they are the most qualified. Players can tell you how they feel, but medical decisions have to be with the experts.
What qualities do you think a team doctor needs to be successful in Rugby?
A team doctor has got to be able to say ‘no’. It’s probably the hardest thing to tell players. Even I'm guilty when I've had a little, niggling injury of always asking the medical guys and pushing to do more and more. When can I run, when can I cycle? They know the recovery timescales and need to be strict in that respect and judge when a player is ready to return to play.
Warren (Gatland – Wales head Coach) is renowned for emphasising the importance of fitness in the squad. How important do you think fitness is compared to talent when it comes to success at the top level?
Everyone is talented when you get to international level. As a team we kicked on to another gear when we really started to focus on the fitness aspect of the game. In the last 4 years and we have become one of the most successful Welsh teams there has been for quite some time. I have noticed in the last 4 years, games where we have been going into the last 20 minutes and we are much stronger. Fitness has been the difference between this Welsh team and perhaps the Welsh teams of the last 10 to 20 years.
You have said before that you like to train hard – even when you are on holiday. Have you ever experienced overtraining syndrome or ‘burnout’?
I haven’t really. Often you wake up and you are so tired and sore you think you can’t go again, but you do. The coaches watch everything from a GPS perspective, they are monitoring our high speed metres when we are running, our loads in the gym. They are constantly talking to us and monitoring the squad and know the condition of each player. They will pull someone back a bit if they have to, to stop them from going over that edge where it is no longer productive. So credit to the staff for that, they are very good at monitoring the players.
If you could play one game again in your career, which one would it be?
When we beat England 30 points to 3 in 2013. It was by far the best game I’ve played in, firstly because of the score line and secondly the atmosphere, it was unbelievable in the stadium. England were coming to try and do the clean sweep and win the (6 Nations) Grand Slam and we ended up taking the championship off them. That was the best game I’ve experienced.
The squad’s pre-World Cup training schedule was pretty gruelling on paper – altitude training in Switzerland, a couple of days using the cryotherapy chamber back in the Vale of Glamorgan (WRU centre of excellence) and then heat training/hypoxic dorms at Aspetar. Did the players see the effects of these camps?
Yes, lots of the players achieved personal bests in both the gym and running, and that was in the middle of a tough, tough camp. It’s not as though they had a few days off and were testing fresh, they were doing it amongst all their difficult training. The boys were quickly seeing on paper that they were the fittest they had ever been, which was great to see.
What effect did all the training have on your preparation for the World Cup?
More than anything it gives you a mental toughness. When you get into a game, you know you have done all the work and you’re as fit as you possibly can be. We don’t play games as the southern hemisphere teams do in the build-up to the world cup, so we have to try to replicate that in training. It’s about making sure we can take ourselves to another level, which is what is needed against the top sides.
Do you ever do any work with a psychologist?
Not any more, no. Personally, I build that mental toughness from training and knowing you have all that work behind you. That gives me the confidence to know I can go out on the field and do the best I can. I think some of the boys do speak to sport psychologists, but that tends to be more to do with skill-based issues. When it comes to mentality, the best way to get it right is by training.
Image via National Assembly for Wales