England hooker Rob Webber has paid tribute to Stuart Lancaster for keeping him in the international fold even when he was injured.
Pocklington-born Webber is part of Lancaster’s squad for the summer trek to South America, and will captain the team for the tour’s curtain-raiser, a non-cap fixture with the Barbarians at Twickenham tomorrow.
Under any other international coach, Webber might have become a forgotten figure after his Test-playing career appeared to be cut short after it had only just begun.
He made three substitute appearances in last year’s Six Nations Championship before being struck down by a shoulder injury that required two surgeries and knocked back his development.
The 26-year-old dropped off the radar for the majority of the rugby world as, still nursing his injury, he made the switch from Wasps to Bath during the summer.
His first few months at the Rec were spent on the treatment table, but all the while, England head coach Lancaster ensured Webber never felt ostracised.
“Even when I was injured I was going up to training camps to spend time with the guys, to get rehab for my injury,” says Webber, who played at hometown club Pocklington before embarking on his journey around the Premiership with Leeds Carnegie.
“Stuart kept inviting me down to the training camps when they were at Pennyhill and then again when it was up at Burton, just to keep a check on how the injury was going.
“That was very good of him to keep me involved, to keep tabs on how I was progressing. I was still able to feel a part of it. That was a really big thing for me.
“I had a shoulder operation the week after the France game in the last Six Nations.
“I thought I was back to where I wanted to be, then I got a setback in the summer and that really knocked me back.”
Lancaster’s faith and Webber’s perseverance have now been repaid with the latter coming in for his second bite at the international cherry.
“It’s vitally important for my career, having not played a lot of rugby, to be back involved,” said Webber. “It was awkward at first and massively frustrating completing my move to Bath when I was carrying an injury.
“Then having to have the operation again meant that my involvement was delayed by a good five or six months.
“So I’ve got a lot to thank Bath for, as well as Stuart. They have all stood by me.”
Webber repaid Bath’s loyalty with the kind of stellar displays that got him back into Lancaster’s England squad.
Now with two Tests against Argentina, it is time to start repaying his international coach.
Webber is part of a youthful England squad that begins its tour against a South American XV in Montevideo, Uruguay, on June 2.
With five key players rested – Chris Robshaw and Leeds-born scrum-half Danny Care among them – and 10 stars touring with the British and Irish Lions, this is the chance for Webber and other fringe players to step up.
“Stuart is not afraid to throw people in who have very few caps,” said Webber.
“It’s all about progressing to the 2015 World Cup for him, when he has a pool of players who have 20 to 30 caps, and this summer tour will be vital for that squad depth.
“It was great effort from the England lads in the Six Nations. They put in some great performances to get into the position of a grand slam decider.
“Okay, the end result wasn’t achieved, but this England team is all about taking lessons and learning from experiences.
“It’s what this team has been doing for the last 18 months under Lancaster. It’s all all about learning and improving.
“And this tour gives a lot of players, including myself, an opportunity to stake a claim.
“Collectively we’ve got to come together as quickly as we can and we have to reward Stuart for the faith he has placed in us.
“Those who aren’t playing will be missed, but it’s up to the rest of us to fly the flag.”
On a personal level, the objective for Webber is to make the No 2 shirt his own over the coming weeks, and in the long-term, with Dylan Hartley and Tom Youngs the current hookers jostling for that position.
“The aim for me is to just to get as much game time as possible while I’m with England over the next few weeks, to be involved as often as I can,” said Webber, who debuted last February against Italy in Rome.
“It will be a good experience to play with some new players and new coaches like Rob Baxter, who I’ve never worked with before.
“I want to keep improving and the two Tests with Argentina will help that process.
“It’ll be a tough old game out there because their scrum is one of the strongest facets of their game. It’ll be a hostile environment and they’ll be really up for it. But this is equally important for us as a team.”
The Bath hooker leads a youthful side with 21-year-olds Matt Kvesic (Worcester Warriors) and Marland Yarde (London Irish) pulling on a senior shirt for the first time. England’s starting line-up contains nine players aged 24 or under.
The replacements game include five more making their first appearances at this level in centre Kyle Eastmond (Bath), lock Kearnan Myall, scrum half Haydn Thomas (Exeter Chiefs), prop Henry Thomas (Sale Sharks) and No 8 Billy Vunipola (London Wasps).
Lancaster said: “We’ve selected a young and exciting side and this is a great opportunity for these players who have shone in the Aviva Premiership this season to step up in front of passionate home crowd at Twickenham Stadium.
“Rob Webber finished the season strongly with Bath and I know his leadership qualities well. I am sure he’ll show the way backed up by the other senior players in the team.”