Sam Warburton is determined to make up for lost time in a Cardiff Blues jersey, after a long-term injury lay-off has kept him out of action this season.
Speaking to The Times, the two-times British and Irish Lions captain admits he has been left frustrated with limited game-time for the Blues, following a series of injuries, but he remains fiercely loyal to his home region.
Warburton, who made his 100th Cardiff Blues appearance during the Boxing Day derby against Dragons in 2016, has not played any rugby since the final Test of the Lions’ epic series against New Zealand last summer.
But despite a glittering career, that most of his fellow professionals could only dream of, Warburton still believes there is plenty for him to achieve in the game before he retires.
“I still feel I need to achieve more,” said Warburton.
“I need to do more in a Blues shirt. I feel I owe that to them. I am never going to play for anyone else, unless they don’t want me and kick me out. I pride myself on being a one-club man.
“I am well aware that I have perhaps not played as many games for the Blues as I should have.
“What I will say is that I’ve honestly only pulled myself out of a game twice. All the others have been injuries and not because I have chosen not to play for the Blues.
“Once I was ill and the other was in 2013 before the Lions tour, it was the last game of the season and we couldn’t go down or up in the league. Jamie Roberts and I didn’t play.
“And I want to go to another World Cup. To play in three would be some achievement, I think.
“I will play again. I can say that 100 per cent.
“I eventually came to the conclusion that my head was not right because my body was not right.
“The way I play, I have to be physically fit. That is my game. I am not blessed with skill. I couldn’t play No 10 to save my life. To play good rugby I have got to be super fit. That is what I pride myself on and I get a lot of confidence off that.
“When I thought about it, to finish now would be way too premature. I have definitely got another two or three good years in me. Now I can see it. I have done two months of training and I am doing stuff I haven’t been able to do for years. I am excited about playing again. I am watching games and am visualising playing those games.”
Following 10-years of service to the region, the 74-times capped Wales international recently launched his testimonial year, which kicks off with a James Bond-themed event at London’s Hurlingham Club on May 1.
Reflecting on last season’s historic Lions tour, Warburton admits he wasn’t fully fit and the injury was aggravated as he returned to training with Cardiff Blues over the summer.
Warburton said: “I remember seeing a Brian O’Driscoll interview when I was a late teenager and he said that he hardly ever played a game when he was 100 per cent fit.
“Because I was young I remember thinking, ‘That’s a blatant lie. How can you play like that?’ Now I’m older, I’m like, ‘He was spot on.’ Nobody plays at 100 per cent.
“I think I probably only operated at about 70 per cent on that tour. I had so many strappings towards the end of the series — both ankles, both knees, both shoulders and my elbow; that doesn’t even include my wrists and fingers. You don’t count them as strapping. My groin was playing up too.
“I was really pleased that I finished the tour, because I didn’t finish 2013. Missing the final Test then meant unfinished business. I really wanted to play in a series finale. But I think I’ll always be disappointed with the result, disappointed that we didn’t win.
“It sounds so spoilt to say that because at home everybody’s perception of the Lions tour has been brilliant, but my mindset from the moment I was picked was that I wanted to be enjoying my time off in the summer having been a Lions winner in New Zealand.
“That was what I wanted on my rugby CV for the rest of my life. Even after we lost the first Test I still thought it was going to happen. I am going to be forever disappointed because I am never going to do that again.”
“I sat down with Danny and Warren and I said that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play again,”
“I told them honestly how I felt about my body. I told them I was worried for my body. I said, ‘I’ve got a daughter now and I want to be able to go to the beach with her and hold her.’ I said, ‘I’m doubting playing again.’
“We weren’t even doing contact. I just went into a pad awkwardly. It was my neck again. If you look back at the video, it looks so innocuous.
“I almost got quite emotional. Not in front of anyone, but in my head.
“I was thinking, ‘This is ridiculous how often this is happening.’ In the past I had not been as honest to the physios as I was then. It suddenly all bubbled to a point like a volcano. It all came out. I laid it out there how much I was struggling.
“I said to the physio, ‘I need to have a scan on my neck. I’ve had enough. I don’t even want to tackle any more. It is bothering me that much.’ I had got to the point where I only needed to get nudged and it was happening really easily.
“The only way I can explain the pain is when you bite some ice cream on your teeth and they are sensitive, it is like that from my neck down to my fingers. A bad one will last up to five minutes. All you can do is cradle your arm and ride it out. It’s horrible.
“They shaved the bottom of one vertebra and the top of another just to help that gap where the nerve comes up,” he says. “It was basically freeing up a pinched nerve by shaving off a bit of bone. It’s when the nerve is compressed that you get that shooting pain.
“You have got to sign a form regarding paralysis. It is a fraction of a chance, but it makes you think. A couple of weeks afterwards I still couldn’t imagine myself playing again because I still had issues in my knee.
“The physios said, ‘While you are out, why don’t you get your knee sorted out as well?’ So the surgeon put a synthetic medial ligament in because the one I had was very loose.
“I had been strapping it up to keep it tight for the last five years. I’ve got a lovely tight knee again now. It feels great. It was killing two birds with one stone.”
For more information about Sam Warburton's testimonial, please visit http://www.samwarburtontestimonial.com
Read Sam Warburton's interview with The Times' Steve James HERE