We need to talk about Rhys Webb. The 31-cap Wales and Lions scrum-half is reported to have bid a final adieu to Toulon after a challenging 18-month stay down on the Cote d’Azur. This after the French superclub reached a verbal agreement with the player and his agent to sever all ties.
It was a typically dramatic turn in what has been a tumultuous time for the returning Osprey.
Webb has been a cause celebre since moving to France in the summer of 2018 given he was 29 caps short of the 60-cap limit implemented by the Welsh Rugby Union at the same time he signed on the dotted line with Mourad Boudjellal.
Only the key protagonists will ever know whether Webb was informed of the ruling before signing but either way there is sympathy for his plight.
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The Bridgend-born No 9 was part of a golden generation. He put in a decade of service for his beloved Ospreys, turning out on 154 occasions, all the while watching the steady trickle of his peers leave for France and England for ‘life experience’ but also the financial rewards on offer. Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts headed for Racing 92, Leigh Halfpenny to Toulon, Jonathan Davies had a whirl at Clermont Auvergne, while Mike Phillips made hay at Perpignan and then Racing 92. The English Premiership gained George North, who headed to Northampton, Liam Williams to Saracens and Taulupe Faletau who decamped to Bath. Oh and that’s not forgetting, Richard Hibbard, Luke Charteris and James Hook. All had prosperous periods outside the Welsh goldfish bowl. Last out of the door was his old mucker Dan Biggar to Northampton.
That’s pretty much an entire backline and pack of Welsh Lions moving to sunnier financial climes. Throughout this unsettling player-drain, Webb must have been thinking, ‘what about me?’ so when the opportunity knocked, the pull and sense of entitlement must have been overwhelming.
Yet behind the sunny Instagram posts by the pool in his Budgie Smugglers, it has been far from a smooth journey. First his wife, Delyth and the couple’s three kids decided there was no place like home and returned to Bridgend, leading to tear-stained interviews. On the pitch, it has been a mixed bag. He has played competently in fits and starts but his Toulon side have lost the sheen of the three-time Champions Cup winners, flirting with relegation and staving off rumours of unrest.
Indeed Boudjellal has made more headlines in spats with star players – see Julian Savea – than headlines on the pitch in recent years, before flouncing off and leaving Bernard LeMaitre to run affairs.
All the while, in Wales, the wheels have kept turning. His long-time adversary Gareth Davies has become one of Wales’ most explosive players, topping the scoring charts at the 2015 Rugby World Cup in Webb’s absence through injury and scoring key interception tries, notably against England and Australia in consecutive World Cups. The common consensus has been that he’s conducted himself with great aplomb. If that wasn’t enough, a young buck by the name of Tomas Williams has come onto the scene and through a cute box-kicking and running game is being heavily tipped to become the Wales’ first-choice No 9 sooner than later.
There’s also been a shifting narrative in the thousands of words written since his departure. A feeling that he’d left Wales for money and couldn’t take anything for granted on his return. For some, he’s been on the naughty step and is getting his just desserts. This seems harsh after a glut of his teammates had committed the same egregious crime and been welcomed back with bouquets and garlands.
If anything, Webb had grounds for hurt feelings at his exclusion in what was a unique case. Tomas Francis has been able to continue his successful Wales career on a technicality, being able to extend his Exeter contract rather than sign a new one – semantics if ever there was one, and Rhys Carre was able to sign for Saracens even though he’d made only a handful of regional appearances and still appear at a World Cup.
A real shame for the powerful winger. https://t.co/GkaSPNtWBN
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 24, 2020
It must be added that the 60-cap rule appears to be working for a Wales and their regions with the likes of Webb, and Williams returning and new caps Nick Tompkins, Louis Rees-Zammit WillGriff John all sounded out about a return to Wales.
So where does this leave him? Well the sight of him at training, mucking about with Justin Tipuric, all smiles has been heartening. As for his reintegration back into the squad, time will tell, but you wonder how the dynamics have changed? Will he be happy to carry the tackle bags as a clear No 3? Aled Davies may have carried out that role in Japan, but Webb, the arch-competitor, is a different case entirely. Never short of self-belief, he’s already started making an impression on Wayne Pivac, who said he’d been impressed with his sharpness at training and brought a level of experience and vocal assertiveness that comes with a Test Lion. “He brings a level of communication that comes with experience. That confidence to challenge other senior players during the training session”, chirped, Pivac. “I think it’s fantastic he’s keeping everyone on their toes. As a 9 you want everyone barking instructions. Nines and 10s have a role to play in terms of delivering the patterns and the plays that we want to use.” So reading between the lines, Webb appears to be ticking every box.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 3, 2020
As for his captain, Alun Wyn Jones, again, there is the familiarity of playing together for a decade. At the Six Nations launch, mention of his name brought a smile, and due respect. “We all know what a quality player Rhys is. It will be good to see the competition we have at scrum-half. He’s gone through a bit to get back into the jersey. As long as he and his family are happy, I think Rhys will flourish as he has before. A Rhys Webb back in the mix with the two nines that we have, Tomas Williams and Gareth Davies, really puts a cat amongst the pigeons. It’s good to have him back in the mix and up for selection.”
When you think about Wales’ probable fly-half being Dan Biggar, someone who has played over 200-times with Webb since their late teens, and that understanding and natural ability to boss a pack shouldn’t be easily discarded by Pivac and his coaching team.
Of their natural understanding, Biggar once told this writer their familiarity gave them an advantage as a halfback pairing. “I can read his body language, how he’s shaping up, when he’s going to snipe, when you want to get on the end of a short pass.”
As for Webb, he knows for all the talk, it’s now down to him. There’s no doubt he’ll be hungry, having missed 23 Tests since his flight South. He’s already been doing ‘extras’ with old Bridgend scrum-half Kevin Ellis and as an obsessive trainer, you can be assured that he won’t be carrying extra timber.
Alun Wyn Jones seems to have the power of eternal life as he is set to commence his 15th year of Test rugby, but Wales must look at a Plan B for a post-AWJ future – @OwainJTJones takes a look at the contenders in line to potentially step uphttps://t.co/GId78C0zPt
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 21, 2020
Many naysayers will point to the fact he’s just turned 31 and say he’s a spent force but that’s a red herring. Look around the Six Nations. Ben Youngs is nine months younger, Willi Heinz is a year older. Over the Irish Sea, Conor Murray is only five months younger, and the recently retired Greig Laidlaw turned 34 in Japan – the same age Webb will be in France. Further afield, Will Genia was the same age at the World Cup, Aaron Smith is a month older and you’re not hearing catcalls to retire. With little rugby in the last 18 months, and some long injury-enforced breaks, Webb could have several years left.
With the Lions tour less than 18 months away, Warren Gatland, a confirmed fan, will be watching from afar with enough contacts to get regular, informed bulletins.
For Davies and Williams, life is about to get a lot more difficult and how they react will be instructive, while for Pivac, managed correctly, the talented trio could hold the key to retaining the Six Nations title.
Can Webb can retain the No 9 shirt? Don’t bet against it.
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