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Rhys Webb: Wales scrum-half on his NHS work and Toulon nightmare

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Rhys Webb on volunteering to make PPE during lockdown

Rhys Webb knows better than most rugby players how to cope in isolation, having been forced to train alone when he was frozen out by his former club Toulon.

Now with competition on hold because of coronavirus, the Wales and British and Irish Lions scrum-half is using his well-honed delivery skills to provide a different kind of service.

“One of my mates is involved with a company making PPE [personal protective equipment] masks for the NHS,” Webb explains to the GoBonus Scrum V podcast.

“They needed someone to work a couple of night shifts because they had to reach a certain target. I enjoy doing it so I sleep an hour in the day, go to work about 8pm and come back about 8am.

  • Listen: Scrum V podcast with Rhys Webb

“We start the process, making basic plastic masks at the beginning of it and they get shipped on to another company, the Royal Mint, and they ship it on to the NHS.

“I think the first couple of shifts I did were 12 hours but we got through about 3,500 masks.

“My sister is working as a nurse at the Princess of Wales Hospital [Bridgend]. Seeing the amount of work she’s getting through at the moment, anything I can do to help is easy for me.

“At 2am or 3am, the eyes were getting a bit heavy but seeing the pile get lower and lower made me think ‘Come on we can do this’.”

How things went ‘sour’ at Toulon

Webb sounds at peace with himself as he describes this temporary new life of his; a man who is happy to be back home with his family after a turbulent period in his career.

The 31-year-old left Ospreys in 2018 to join French giants Toulon, ruling him out of Wales contention because of the Welsh Rugby Union’s selection rules.

Although missing out on Test rugby was a wrench for Webb, it was a sacrifice he felt he had to make, such was the money on offer and the prospect of winning trophies with the three-time European champions.

But with his family unable to settle in the south of France and returning to Wales last year, Webb announced in December he would be rejoining Ospreys at the end of this season after Toulon agreed to release him from the final year of his contract “for family reasons”.

However, all was not as amicable as it seemed between the two parties.

Once Webb was named in Wales’ squad for this year’s Six Nations, Toulon owner Bernard Lemairtre and president Mourad Boudjellal were were stinging in their criticism of the scrum-half in the French media.

Rhys Webb admits to a fraught relationships with Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal

“The worst thing is they wouldn’t say it face-to-face,” says Webb.

“They did all their talking straight to the French media, so I’d only find out the next day in training when the boys would tell me.

“When my family first left, he [Boudjellal] said something [in the media] but then the next week I was man of the match against Lyon and he was high-fiving me, hugging me in training so I was like ‘Is this guy for real?’

“They didn’t have the decency to talk to me face-to-face.

“The players at Toulon were there for me when it all started coming out that Toulon wanted to get rid of me.

“The foreign players but more so the French players, like Charles Ollivon the French captain, they were the first to ring me, asking I if was OK and making sure we’d go for a beer after the Six Nations.”

With the support of his team-mates, Webb at least felt he could continue training and playing – even if the Toulon hierarchy undermined him publicly.

“I would’ve been happy to stay there until the end of the season,” he adds.

“I knew I was coming back to the Ospreys at the end of the season so I thought I’d have a good last six months there, enjoy it and try and go out on a high.”

But soon even training sessions became an ordeal.

“It just went a bit sour,” Webb says.

“I was turning up to training but they started naming the team for training and, if your name wasn’t on the board, you don’t train. And it was only my name not on the board.

“I just went to the gym on my own, no fitness coach, and when the boys had come off the pitch, I went on to do my fitness and passing and kicking.

“This went on for about two weeks.

“Luckily enough, then it was time for me to go to the Six Nations camp and it was a relief to get back on the training field and getting back to that camaraderie with the group.

“They [Toulon] were not happy I’d been picked for the Six Nations. They see it as you’re a Toulon player and don’t want you to play for anyone else.

“I knew I hadn’t done anything to upset anyone. I even said to them I’m going into it [Six Nations] as third choice so there’s a good chance in the down weeks I’m going to come back and I’ll want to play.

“Because I wasn’t training with anyone and living on my own, I didn’t really see anyone for two weeks.

“They need to understand that they could do things better, deal with things better by speaking to players directly instead of going to the press.

“When the time came around and I was picked for the Six Nations, I got the first plane out of there. I just needed to get into a good rugby environment again.”

A Wales return – and then the Lions?

Rhys Webb returned to Test rugby in Wales’ opening 2020 Six Nations win over Italy in February

Webb’s return to international rugby came at the perfect time, an escape from the nightmare unfolding at Toulon.

Before his Test exile, Webb was Wales’ first-choice scrum-half, a potent attacking weapon and a smart tactician who had helped the Lions draw their 2017 series in New Zealand.

But after playing in Wales’ win over South Africa in December 2017, Webb would not feature for his country for more than two years.

In the meantime, the team won the 2019 Grand Slam and reached a World Cup semi-final.

So when he returned to the international fold this season, Webb felt like he had some catching up to do.

“I was quite nervous going back in and I’m not usually a nervous person,” he says.

“I was thinking I’d been out of the group for two years and they’d been to a World Cup, done this and done that. But then I thought I’m here to help them achieve even bigger and better things.

“I was chuffed to be back in the mix. I needed to work hard and prove what I could do.

“It was hard at the beginning when I didn’t have a team to go back to during the down weeks but then I got a deal with Bath and then I felt in a really good place.”

Webb signed a short-term contract with Bath to fill the gap between the termination of his Toulon deal and his return to Ospreys.

Playing for the English Premiership side helped the scrum-half regain his match sharpness and, as the Six Nations progressed, his improvement was evident.

After coming on as a replacement against Italy and England, Webb was then named in Wales’ starting team to face Scotland on 14 March.

But that match was postponed as the coronavirus pandemic started to take hold, and Webb’s progress was halted.

Whenever rugby returns, Webb hopes to re-establish himself as Wales’ premier scrum-half.

If he can achieve that, then he will move on to his next target: the 2021 Lions tour of South Africa.

“That’s the end goal of mine, to get on another Lions tour,” Webb says.

“I know there’s a lot of hard work to go to get there and I need a good run of games, stay fit and put my hand up for selection.

“There’s plenty more to come from me.”

Listen in full and to more exclusive interviews with the likes of Jamie Roberts, Dan Biggar and Billy Vunipola on the GoBonus Scrum V podcast on GoBonus Sounds.

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