Book Review: Open Side

Sam Warburton is one tough hombre
11:31, 18 Oct 2019

To get a sense of playing rugby for a living, try going up your stairs on all fours. Or scatter broken glass on your regular route from bed to the bathroom, to mimic the discomfort that journey can sometimes involve. Or try stitching in your eyelid watching the needle all the way.

Pain and its consequences are a given for Sam Warburton, especially with this mantra: “Unless you’re unconscious or your femur’s snapped, you’re never injured in defence. If you can stand, you can get in line.”

He displays his loyalty to the creed when playing for the British Lions in 2013, dragging himself back into the action even after his hamstring has been torn clean off the bone. A high pain threshold is putting it mildly. Towards the end of his career, he tries to list the parts of his body that don’t hurt and comes up with just one: eyelashes. He also counts the number of serious injuries that have interrupted his career: 22. 

Warburton’s dream as a child was to play for Spurs, but before long he decided football didn’t have enough “aggro.” He is not a thuggish man. On the contrary, he is disciplined (he takes a “constructive and regimented” approach to homework) and thoughtful, even if those thoughts are occupied by a single topic: being the best number 7 in the world. 

In pursuit of this goal, nothing is allowed to stand in his way – he details several of the matches in which the opposition make that mistake. “I’ve never seen an Under-12 hit so hard,” says one rattled coach. He speedily climbs the ranks at his local club, Cardiff Blues, although admits he isn’t able to bring quite the same hamstring-donor intensity as he gives to the Welsh national side. To do so would finish him off.

He discusses his controversial sending off in the 2011 World Cup against France in detail, including a bartender gormlessly chirruping “What the hell was their captain thinking?” to him the following day in a poorly judged small talk gambit. Warburton was the captain. And he talks about the intensity of his chosen profession; pressure which when he’s playing can make him wish he wasn’t, and when he isn’t, make him wish he was. To show he’s not exaggerating, he says even many of Liverpool’s dominant 80s side couldn’t wait to get to 4.45 on a Saturday to momentarily escape the expectations. 

Open Side is not, however, autobiography as extended medical record or highlights reel. It is unexpectedly, thanks to Warburton’s unaffected modesty, generosity of spirit and as the title promises, openness, a hugely affecting book. Eventually, all that violence done to his body forces him to retire at 28 following an epic Lions series in New Zealand. Rugby enthusiasts will be delighted by Open Side, Welsh ones will swell with pride too, but so touching are his thoughts on what it means to do what he did, only the stoniest of hearts will withstand this severe test of tear duct control.

Open Side, by Sam Warburton. HarperCollins, £20

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