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'I'm not going into too many details but it can become a bit of a toxic environment'

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Alex Davidson/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

David Ribbans was like a big kid in a toy shop last weekend at Exeter, the Northampton lock selflessly throwing himself about in the Devon mud to glorious effect. Saints were deemed to have a cat in hell’s chance of causing an upset at the home of the Gallagher Premiership champions, but they surprised everyone with their unyielding level of grit. 


Ribbans himself had a field day. It was his lineout fetch that set-up the driving maul which gave Northampton their first half-try. He was then involved in the second half incidents that earned them penalty points, shipping an illegal hit from Jack Yeandle for the first award and then effortlessly rolling an Exeter tackler away at the ruck when an infringement happened nearby.   

Even down to the wire he was still flying it. Forwards by the 80th minute should be sucking for whatever air is left in their lungs, trying to hang on in there. Yet when Joe Simmonds took his little extra step when setting himself for the touchline conversion that could have won the game at the death for Exeter, Ribbans had one final sprint in him for Northampton.

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Nigel Owens guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

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Nigel Owens guests on the latest RugbyPass Offload with Simon Zebo and Ryan Wilson

He wound up being the third Saint – behind Ollie Sleightholme and George Furbank – to finish the dramatic charge towards the kicking tee that was placed on the 22. A sweet afternoon’s work? You bet. “Ollie and those guys were too fast but I was there,” he said when asked by RugbyPass to reflect on the bizarre finish to the Premiership match. “I was giving it my best shot, I’ll tell you that. 

“I haven’t watched it back too much but we were within our rights to go to it. The only thing I was worried about was waiting for the referee to blow that whistle. Was it a re-kick or was it game over? It was game over and I was obviously ecstatic.”

That’s no wonder. Northampton’s winter was grim. A seven-game on-pitch losing streak post-lockdown – six in the restarted 2019/20 Premiership and another at Sandy Park in a one-sided Champions Cup quarter-final, was followed by even more pain and anguish.

Five more games were lost, three in the new-season league and another two in Europe, before the best Christmas present ever belatedly arrived on Boxing Day, Northampton beating Worcester to win their first match since the August 22 victory over London Irish – a wounding 126-day gap in between Ws.


Now they are right back in the thick of the Premiership play-off race with Bath next-up this Sunday at Franklin’s. Difficult conversations have given way in recent weeks to a sweeter and light atmosphere at Northampton and Ribbans, for one, is chuffed. He played on nine occasions in that deflating twelve-match winless streak (13 if the pandemic-enforced cancellation at Gloucester that was recorded as a loss is included), but he never lost faith that Saints would eventually turn it around.

“It was tough,” he recalled. “As a professional sportsman, you play to win. No one wants to be on the losing side, especially in some of those games. We put in some really good performances for 60 minutes and then we would let in a soft try that cost us.

“There were some tough conversations but as a whole, the squad stuck together. We believed in what we were doing, we believed in the coaches, so as an organisation we stayed together which was massive because I have been in situations where that is not the case. We knew if we could stick together, believe in the process and everything we were doing, it would come right and slowly it’s starting to get there as results are showing.”

Situations where that unity was not the case? Tell us more. “I’m not going into too many details but it can become a bit of a toxic environment, players and the coaches group and a big divide. Players are out on the pitch playing the game and we see and feel it and maybe don’t agree with what the coaches are saying or how they are wanting us to play.


“You know there is just not that link, which is something we did have here (at Northampton). We trusted in Chris Boyd and the coaches, we knew they were telling us the right messages, it just wasn’t quite clicking. That shows a lot of character as a squad to stay together. The coaches were backing us, we were backing them. It was a tough time, there are no two ways about that, but we are a very strong group and it’s slowly starting to come together.”

Still, the Northampton ordeal was excruciating on a personal level, Ribbans admitting he isn’t a good loser. “I’m pretty shocking, to be honest. It’s a weakness of mine. I’m not someone who is too fun to be around after we lose. I’m putting that lightly.

Northampton Ribbans losing streak
David Ribbans reacts to another Northampton defeat (Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images via Getty Images)

“I’d have a bit of a sulk and a mope after the game. On Sunday you are still a bit sore but by Monday you have got to get over it. You have some harsh meetings on Monday and you have to be accountable for the game. A coach is going to show you what you did wrong and you have to take that on the chin.

“That doesn’t faze me but on Monday you have also got to start looking ahead to the new week and go to the next game. You can’t hold onto it for too long. It was tough when you were losing three, four in a row, whatever it was at the end. It’s tough, it’s a bit of a boulder. Then you don’t really have a pre-season and it feels like one continuous season. It was tough, but the group stood strong and it is slowly getting back to where we should be.

“The Wasps win was another close game where a couple of months ago we would have probably let slip. Guys have shown a lot of character, just that belief starting to come back, but at the same time we have high aspirations as a team so we don’t want to be fourth, we want to be in that top two.

“That is really where we believe we should be and we hope that Exeter is not just a one-off performance. We want to back that up this weekend and in weeks to come. Morale is high at the moment after some good wins but we are putting a lot of pressure on each other because we know we have got to get even better.”

The silver lining amid the Northampton gloom was that Ribbans was still standing out from the crowd, voted his club’s players’ player of the year and being involved with the wider England squad over the course of the Autumn Nations Cup. A debut cap eluded him but the 25-year-old, who is currently one of the shadow squad picks on standby for a Six Nations call-up, got enough of a taste to make him even more determined to represent the land of his grandfather.

“I didn’t manage to get a cap but it was a great experience and I really enjoyed it, a competitive environment with 35 of the best players in the country all there competing, I really enjoyed my time there. Great coaching staff and facilities and all the rest. But I want to get that international cap, be a part of that. It’s every professional’s dream or goal and I am still pushing hard for that but I am just focusing on Saints and trying to do well, that is all I can do.

“My father’s side they are all English,” continued Ribbans, explaining the qualifications that have the in-form Northampton lock knocking on Eddie Jones’ England door. “My grandfather was born in Enfield and then he moved over. I was born and raised in South Africa but my heritage is English through my grandfather.

“They were super excited (when I was called up). They know it was a big move for me to move over. I was 21, had never left South Africa before, had never been overseas. It was a big adjustment but I was following my passion, my dream and all of that, and they were really happy.”

The Premiership is currently stacked with South Africans. More than 40 are on the books across the dozen clubs but Ribbans wasn’t too clued in when initially approached by Northampton about joining them in 2017. “I was playing for Western Province at the time and the Stormers. I still had a year on my contract there and Northampton approached me. They flew me and my dad up to have a look at the club, meet the coaches, see the facilities and I was just excited for a new challenge.

“The profile of the Premiership in South Africa, at the time we used to get a couple of games on the sports channels, it wasn’t massive. I had to do research on the club to understand everything but now there are three or four games televised live in South Africa at the moment, the sports coverage is really good and it does help when about 40 South Africans are playing over here.

“People want to see them play and it is becoming a lot more appealing for players to move here, especially with the little bit of uncertainty in South African rugby. At the time I moved, it was a bit of a gamble, a bit of a risk, but I was excited about it. I wanted the change and I’m glad I made the move.

“On the field, we [South Africans] try and hit each other harder just to prove a point. I have played with quite a few of the guys who moved over through age-group level, played some U19s and U21s. After a game, it is good to catch up with them but no love is lost on the field, I’ll tell you that.”

Ribbans is a quiet type, keeping his head down during the lockdown in Northampton to finish some financial management studies. The family business at home is one avenue he may explore when his rugby is all over but that is quite a way off yet given he is well settled in the East Midlands with even the famed ex-England cricketer Allan Lamb taking him under his wing and ensuring a player now nicknamed ‘Ribeye’ isn’t ever short of company outside of rugby.

“It’s different to where I come from. In Cape Town, we have beaches and mountains, beautiful weather and all that, but what I have loved about Northampton is it’s a rugby town and we have such passionate fans, terrific fans. They have all been really welcoming and I have been made to feel at home here, some great teammates of similar age. I have been made to feel part of the team, part of Northampton.

“It has got a fantastic family feel to it which I really like and I have met some really good people outside of rugby. The Lambs are my English family. They are known to throw fantastic what you guys call barbecues but what we call braais and I was invited to one as a new South African in Northampton. Allan was serving a whole rib-eye steak.

“When you meet someone for the first time you should be fairly polite, not eat too much and all of that, but I was the complete opposite, I went up for my third or fourth helping. I got the ‘Ribeye’ nickname from Lamby after he had a few drinks and it just stuck. He and his wife have taken me in, they are my family who looks after me and have been unbelievable.

“He is a massive Northampton fan. He gives harsh feedback, as all fans do, but he has been really supportive of me, a great connection to have. When I first met them I phoned my old man just to let them know who I was going to go see and my old man said do you know who he is? I said I heard he played cricket. Since then I went away and did my homework. I now know what a star he was.”


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