Saints farewell interview: David Ribbans

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“It had been brewing for a while, the thought of a new challenge, wanting to experience something else.”

Those are the words of David Ribbans as he begins to outline why he felt the need to cut short his stay at Saints this summer.

It had seemed as though Ribbans would continue his journey at the club at which he has made his name since making the move from Western Province back in January 2017.

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But the lure of life in France proved too strong as the 27-year-old exercised a break clause in his contract to secure a switch to Toulon.

David Ribbans' final game for Saints came in the Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)David Ribbans' final game for Saints came in the Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
David Ribbans' final game for Saints came in the Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens (photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

It was a big blow for Saints, and for England, with Ribbans having taken to the international stage like a duck to water after making his debut in November of last year.

But if was something Ribbans simply felt he had to do at this stage in his career.

“I signed a contract way back when under Boydy (Chris Boyd), a 3+1, and it was my decision to leave,” Ribbans explained.

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“I felt like my career was reaching a bit of a standstill, though playing for England is probably a bit of a contradiction, but it felt like the right time for a new challenge.

“I'd been at Saints for seven years, grown up and I just felt like it was now or never really.

“I had a good couple of opportunities elsewhere, the final one being Toulon, which I took.

“I really wanted to experience something new, try out a new league that's thriving at the moment, some of the best players are there, and I don't have any major responsibilities or life commitments yet in terms of a family and stuff like that.

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“The move becomes a lot easier than if you start having kids and things like that.

“The timing of everything aligned pretty well.”

There are of course financial incentives to move to France, with Saints having lost several stars to the Top 14 over recent years.

But though that helped to influence his decision a little, Ribbans insists money wasn't his main motivating factor.

“There's no beating around the bush that of course it's a major factor in your decision-making but when my process sort of started, probably a year ago, with all the small talk and conversations of thinking about my future, my main thinking was a new opportunity and new experience,” he said.

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“The financial thing comes in afterwards when you start having that proper contract negotiation but for me it was about having something fresh, something new and a new chapter to excite my rugby again.

“I wanted something to kickstart my career and get me excited for rugby again.

“I'd been at Saints a really long time, thoroughly enjoyed my time there but I just needed a new challenge so that was what sparked it off for me.

“It wasn't initially about finances, it (having a new challenge) was my only incentive.

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“Finances did end up becoming a big part of it but my initial thoughts were about that new challenge.”

Ribbans did have to weigh up his decision carefully, knowing he will not be able to feature for England once he links up with Toulon, which will come after this year's Rugby World Cup should the lock earn selection for that tournament in France.

“It was probably the big decision I had to make because last year I got my England debut and all that went with that, all the emotions and it was something I'd been wanting to achieve for a long time,” said Ribbans, who was named in England's latest training squad earlier this week.

“It was probably the reason a year ago why I started looking elsewhere because I felt like I wasn't getting that opportunity.

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“Then to break through and get a shot at international level, I've thoroughly enjoyed it and hopefully I can get to the World Cup but I had to weigh up my options.

“Going to Toulon, I've made peace with the fact that if the rules don't change in the England setup then I won't get to play for England.

“It was the toughest decision I had to make, leaving England and knowing I wouldn't be up for selection again for the international side.”

With Ribbans seemingly settled at Saints and breaking through with England, the coaches at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens were confident they could hold on to him.

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Speculation surrounding Ribbans' club future started to come from the French press in January, but Phil Dowson didn't feel there was a reason to believe it.

At the time, the Saints boss said: “I had a chat with him last week and he seems pretty happy.

"He's a very frustrated man because, like me, he can see the quality we've got in our group and at the moment we're not necessarily realising that.

"He's one of the drivers and leaders in that space who I am desperate to make sure remains a Saintsman.

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"I've seen those rumours but from my conversation with Dave, he's invested in the club and we're really happy with him.

"The way he's played in the past couple of games, it would come as no surprise to me that lots and lots of people would be interested in him.

"But at the same time, he's with us and we're very happy.

"I'm confident, hopeful and there's been nothing that's happened or been said by him or his agent to Paul Shields, our head of recruitment, to suggest he's unhappy.”

It clearly blindsided the coaches when Ribbans did sit down with them and tell them he was going to exit his contract.

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So how did those conversations go, and how tough were they to have?

“They were very tough conversations and unfortunately the way it came out wasn't ideal, with quite a few rumours in France emerging,” Ribbans said.

“I hadn't said much to the club yet because nothing was signed and sealed and I wanted to make sure I was covered from that point of view before any serious announcements.

“They were obviously incredibly tough decisions and you'd have to ask the coaches how they took it, I would say mixed opinions would be putting it nicely but they all respected my decision.

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“I told them I was fully committed to the Saints until the end of the season and I showed them and everyone else that I was with my performances. I was still very much Saints first at the back end of the season after Six Nations and all.

“Of course it was a difficult decision to leave, leaving behind a group of mates who I've grown up with over the past seven years.

“When I arrived, they were all sort of Academy players and we grew up together.

“I don't regret my decision at all, I'm really looking forward to the move and I'm really looking forward to the next chapter in my career.

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“It seems like the Premiership has a few things to sort out themselves at the moment.”

Try as he might, Ribbans was unable to secure any major silverware during his time at Saints.

But does he feel the club can push on next season and beyond to finally bring those trophies back to the Gardens?

“We'll have to see, there's a lot of players leaving,” he said.

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“I obviously wish them nothing but the best and I would love to see Lewis Ludlam leading the boys, people like Mitch, Furbs, Dingers, Colesy, guys I've grown up with, win silverware.

“But we'll have to see.”

Ribbans' stay at Saints ended with a Gallagher Premiership play-off semi-final defeat at Saracens.

It was the second year in succession that the club had lost in the final four to the team that would eventually be crowned champions.

But at least it was a far stronger position than Ribbans found himself in when he initially made the move to Saints more than six years ago.

“To be honest, my first year was tough,” he said.

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“I rocked up and Jim (Mallinder) got the sack as soon as I arrived in my first full season.

“The club was in a different situation because Alan Dickens took over for a bit, we had Alan Gaffney step in and I kind of thought 'what the hell have I done?' to be honest with you.

“You lose your head coach pretty early on and then there was a lot of old boys, people who had won the title and the club just needed a change. It was going through a phase where it needed a few new faces and a massive change.

“That first year was pretty tough, going through all of that.

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“Then when Boydy came in, that's when the ship really steadied a bit and he gave so many young guys the opportunity who hadn't played before.

“He trusted them and I was one of them.

“I became a key member in his three years at the club and that's when I really cemented my place and played some of my best rugby.

“It's been a huge journey, it really has but I think I've developed loads as a player, as a leader, I've got my place in the team and the senior group.

“I absolutely loved it and though it was an incredibly tough decision to leave, all good things do come to an end.

“On to new, exciting opportunities.”

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Ribbans didn't arrive with great fanfare when he came over as a youngster from South Africa.

But he has since gone on to establish himself as a key cog in the Saints wheel.

So did he ever expect to enjoy such success in England?

“I didn't really know to be honest,” he said.

“I always had the ambition that I would come and make a difference but I can't sit here and say I saw myself being here for seven years and making this my home.

“I would be lying if I said that.

“I didn't really know my full plan at the time but I knew when I left South Africa that ideally I didn't want to go back - I wanted to make a name here one way or the other.

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“To have done it with the Saints for so many years and to have been part of the Premiership for so long has been brilliant.

“It's definitely been better than I expected, that's for sure.”

Though Saints couldn't secure the silverware Ribbans hoped for, he wasn't short of personal prizes.

He said: “I won back-to-back players' player of the season, supporters' player of the season, Supporters Club player of the season so I've had plenty of recognition here, which is extremely humbling.

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“Getting players' player of the season is the most special of all of them because it means your peers have recognised the hard work you've put in.

“I've always tried to fight for the Saints, I'm an extremely competitive person, I don't take losing very well at all.

“I've always wanted the very best for Saints and I'm hoping now to move on and have success in a different tournament and try to win some of those trophies.

“It was disappointing not to have won any trophies at Saints and I found that tough being at the club and not achieving that.

“It was still amazing times.”

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Ribbans leaves Saints having made 121 appearances for the club, scoring 18 tries in the process.

And he now has an exciting few months in store as he looks forward to the World Cup and a fresh start in France.

“There's a lot of uncertainty with the World Cup squad and not knowing whether you're going to be in or out,” said Ribbans, who has five England caps to his name.

“I've got to fly to France and set up there, lots of stuff admin wise but I'm just taking it one step at a time and trying to enjoy it.

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“Ultimately, it's incredibly exciting to be moving to a beautiful part of the world, to play for a historically great team and then there's the World Cup coming up, which is all I'm trying to think about at the moment.

“I want to go into camp, hopefully make my mark and get on that trip to France and be part of the England team.

“It's incredibly exciting and I'm taking it one day at a time.

“Lots to look forward to.”