When Rhys Webb announced his retirement from international rugby just a few months out from the World Cup it led to more than a few raised eyebrows among the Welsh rugby public.
After all Webb has never represented Wales in rugby’s showpiece event having been cruelly denied by a nasty foot injury a mere week out from the tournament in 2015, while in 2019 he fell foul of Welsh rugby’s controversial 60-cap law while he was plying his trade in Toulon.
Having returned from France to join the Ospreys in 2019 Webb was then deemed surplus to requirements by then Wales boss Wayne Pivac. But the man from Bridgend refused to throw in the towel, fighting hard to regain his place as Wales first choice scrum-half during the Six Nations.
So, why did he feel the need to call time on his international career so close to the World Cup? “Coming back from Toulon the goal was always to play for Wales again and I achieved that,” Webb told WalesOnline.
“I had to bide my time because Wayne Pivac wasn’t interested in my services but I dug in, and with the full support of the Ospreys coaches, worked my way back up into the Welsh squad. I finished my time in Wales as first choice scrum-half which I’m proud of but due to contract negotiations which were stalling all the time I had to make a choice.
“When you get older as a professional rugby player you understand how money starts decreasing. I was aware and accepting of that but I wasn’t able to commit to anything I’d been offered back here in Wales.
“I thought with the service I’d given to the Ospreys and getting back to becoming the number one Welsh scrum-half I thought I’d have been in a decent position.
“I wasn’t asking for more money but I didn’t think it would be as massive a drop as it was. I was disappointed in that but with that happening, and with all the stuff that went on in the Six Nations it was mind blowing.”
Webb is of course referring to the protracted contractual freeze which took place for most of the season, and which also very nearly led to the players striking ahead of Wales’ Six Nations clash with England in Cardiff. In the end strike action was narrowly averted but times remain tough for every professional rugby player in Wales with a period of severe austerity set to hit Cardiff, Dragons, Ospreys, and Scarlets.
“Having been in the international wilderness for so long I obviously didn’t expect to come back to all that,” he said. “I loved my time in Welsh rugby but there always seems to be something happening in the background or something trying to distract you.
“I’ve always said to myself not to take any notice of it but it was much harder this time. There were a lot of conversations in the media about the Ospreys merging and if we were going to lose a region it would be the Ospreys along with the contractual freeze.
“There’s always some drama going on. When I moved out to France for the first time it was always about going out of the goldfish bowl, and being out of the news in Welsh rugby.
“This decision I’ve made has taken all the weight off my shoulders and I feel I can just concentrate on rugby.”
While Webb wishes he could have starred for Wales in a World Cup he has no regrets whatsoever, and is content with all he has achieved on the international circuit. While Webb’s love for the red jersey burns bright his devotion for his family is even greater with the deciding factor for his move to Biarritz centring on providing security for his wife and kids.
“In an ideal scenario I would have loved to have played for Wales in the World Cup but with negotiations stalling, and the fact I have a family to support I had to make this decision,” said Webb.
“I wasn’t willing to take the risk of getting injured in the training camps while I was out of contract. What happened to me in 2015 is still fresh in my mind and if that had happened again this time it would have been the end of my career because I’m 34 now.
“It was a nightmare for me getting injured so close to the 2015 World Cup, and all these demons were are the forefront of my mind. It would have been far too big of a risk for me going into that with no contract.
“I met the Biarritz president who has faith in me and offered me a long-term deal which is what I wanted in the first place but couldn’t get that in Wales. I always wanted to move back to France because I love the way they play the game, and the crowds they get.
“I don’t regret not playing in the World Cup because there are more important things like providing for my family. Playing for the British & Irish Lions was one of the pinnacles of my career and was number one on my list. Representing Wales meant the world to me and I’m honoured to have done it 40 times.
“I’ve got a young family to support and family is more important to me than rugby. As Gats has always said family comes first, and I had to put my family first here because there was only a one-year deal on the table in Wales.
“The one-year deal I got offered to stay at the Ospreys was terrible, and there was no security. A one-year deal provides no security for a rugby player, especially with all the stuff which has gone on this year with the contracts.
“If I’d taken that one-year deal come October or November my mind is going to be elsewhere thinking ‘oh s**t, what if I pick up an injury now, it will stop me from getting another contract in Wales.’
“I realised a long time ago there was no loyalty in the game anymore and this is just a business now so it just summed it up. I bit the Biarritz president’s hand off when he offered me a two-year deal and I can’t wait to get over there to get stuck into it.”
Webb looks back on his time in Wales fondly but admits the last year has been extremely difficult for every professional rugby player in the country. And the 34-year-old has urged Welsh rugby’s powerbrokers to get the game in this country back on track for the sake of the next generation of players.
“There’s loads of young Welsh talent coming through and it’s not good for them seeing what’s going on at the highest level of the game,” he said.
“I think it is being talked about as resetting Welsh rugby and starting again. I have no doubt Welsh rugby will be on the rise again.
“There’s a lot of negativity about Welsh rugby but I think it will get better in the long run. You go into a Six Nations camp and you want to get better as a player and as a team but last time out we were having a number of training sessions cancelled or cut short to go to have important two. three-hour meetings about off-field stuff.
“It was very draining for everyone. I just hope they don’t have to go through anything like this again.”
For Webb a new adventure awaits near the Spanish border in the south of France with Biarritz Olympique in the Pro D2. Biarritz are fallen giants of French rugby, five-time Top 14 champions, and twice runners-up of the old Heineken Cup. The former Ospreys star has been sold the idea of helping Biarritz win promotion to the Top 14.
“I had a few opportunities elsewhere but Biarritz felt like the right fit,” he said. “I remember playing against Biarritz in a Heineken Cup quarter-final back in 2010 during the Ospreys’ ‘Galacticos’ period, and we lost narrowly.
“Rugby is massive in Biarritz, and they are looking to get back to the top of French and European rugby. It’s also a beautiful part of the world to live.
“I’m ready for a new challenge now, and even though they are in the PROD2 they were in third over Christmas time but then they got hit by loads of injuries which stopped them from making the play-offs. After speaking to the president and the owners I can see what they are trying to achieve and I thoroughly believe they can do something special over the next couple of years by getting the club back into the Top 14 where it belongs.
“They’ve got a good core group of players there and they’ve made some good signings like Jonathan Joseph. I really believe we can get the club back into the Top 14.”
In his pomp Webb was a tremendous scrum-half with his supreme game management, sharp service and his electric attacking game giving him an edge. He may be approaching his mid-30s but Webb is confident he has plenty more left in the tank, but he is also looking forward to spending some quality time with his family.
“When it was Covid times and everything shut down we had a long period off,” he said. “That allowed me to rest the body and refresh mentally.
“I feel like I’m 24 again not 34! I’ve had about 10 weeks off doing my own thing, and I’m in great shape. My family are also really looking forward to it. Biarritz is one of the best surfing spots in the world so my boys are looking forward to getting their wetsuits and surfboards out.
“I remember quite a lot from when I was over there with Toulon, and I’m looking forward to getting back into it. I’m looking forward to diving into it.
“I had a brilliant time the last time I was in France. Now I can focus just on the Biarritz, and I’m looking forward to the next two years.”