By Peter Jackson
The lucky ones find a way of bowing out with a World Cup or a Grand Slam in their hands, the acclaim of a grateful country ringing in their ears.
Few manage the hazardous task of leaving when they choose to before someone else opens the back door and shoves them through it. Rhys Webb had always looked good enough to leave on his own terms.
Instead the No.1 scrum-half in Wales, second best only to Conor Murray in the Lions’ pecking order, is left staring at a fate which would have been unthinkable a few short months ago – that he will never again sample the unique experience of lining up for Wales in Cardiff.
He is more a victim of rugby politics than anything as mundane as a knee injury severe enough to rule him out of the entire Six Nations. He would not have gone to Argentina in the summer regardless of fitness on what will be used to test tomorrow’s men.
For all his protestations to the contrary, Webb must have known of the risks inherent in signing up to spend the next three seasons doubling his money at Toulon.
He, alone of the leading Welsh players, has fallen foul of the rule that no player leaving the country with fewer than 60 caps disqualifies himself from Test selection until he returns. The WRU have been berated in some quarters for imposing the rule as a deterrent to younger players leaving.
The alternative would have been to do nothing, wave the white flag and end up with the majority of their national squad in the hands of English or French employers. They had to do something and if Webb didn’t know the score as he claims, then his agent ought to have known.
Having made the understandable choice based on securing his financial future, the Ospreys’ scrum-half could at least look forward to a few farewell appearances before the guillotine came down. Injury has robbed him of that.
Webb’s Toulon contract is scheduled to expire in 2021 which means he will be not far short of 33 when, or if, he finishes his career back in Wales. Who knows, he may still be the best man for the job but the odds will be against it.
A lot can happen in three weeks never mind three years by which time younger challengers like Aled Davies and Tomos Williams, younger still at 22, ought to be in their prime. Wales have never had any shortage of scrum-halves and only last week Reuben Morgan-Williams signed his first professional contract for the Ospreys.
Given a fair wind, who’s to say that the teenager who turns 20 this Friday won’t have climbed all the way to the top by the time the 2023 World Cup comes round? But for his knee Webb would at least have been afforded the chance by his country of bowing out in some style unlike his fellow Lion, Simon Zebo.
He, too, is following the yellowbrick road into the Top 14, sacrificing his international future as a consequence. Far from allowing him a farewell tour of the Six Nations, Ireland have declared him persona non grata on the basis that only those based at home can wear the green.
That explains why the Scarlets’ lock Tadgh Beirne, surely in pole position as the PRO14’s player of the year, remains uncapped and will do so until he repatriates himself at the end of the season. The Irish policy, of course, does rather depend who you are.
If your name is Jonathan Sexton you could sign for a team on the dark side of the Moon and Joe Schmidt’s regime wouldn’t think twice about launching a lunar spacecraft to fly him home. Throughout his time in Paris with Racing Metro, Sexton carried on at fly-half as if he had never left, a fact which will not have escaped Zebo or Webb.
Each will count his blessing at being good enough to join clubs capable of winning the Champions’ Cup and rewarded well enough to count their money at the rate of €10,000-a-week. To earn that, each has had to give up something money cannot buy, the honour of playing for their country.
In rugby, as in life, something always has to give. As the modern proverb puts it, you can’t have your cake and eat it as well.
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