David Ribbans exclusive: England and Northampton Saints lock on his first cap, that offload and his three goals this season
Northampton Saints and England second-row David Ribbans is what is known in coaching circles as ‘a serious asset’.
2.02m tall and 120kg of prime lock forward, Ribbans’ mobility, ball skills and pace have been features of his game since he arrived at Franklin’s Gardens in 2017 from the Stormers.
Try scoring is also part of the big man’s game – snaring 17 in his 117 first class games for England and Saints, an average of a try every 6.8 matches – a ratio that places him amongst the elite back-rows and centres of the sport rather than the mere piano pushers of the second-row.
Qualified via an English grandmother in 2019/20 season, Ribbans was first called up by Eddie Jones for the 2021 Six Nations, but made his debut in the 2022 Autumn Nations Series, gaining two caps off the bench.
Planet Rugby’s James While caught up with the Stormer-cum-Saint to discuss his aspirations and how a player of his unique skill sets transfers club form into Test excellence.
Lad in waiting
“Look, that first cap was a long time coming but was a real focus for me – when I came to Saints I was aware of my qualification for England and it was an absolute goal. I came particularly with a view to try and play for the England so it was it was very rewarding to finally get that opportunity to put on that jersey – especially as the two Tests I played it were right at the pinnacle of the sport,” Ribbans said.
“It was strange to be selected at that point as I’d struggled a little bit with a back injury and perhaps thought that I had been in better form previously when not selected! I think I played two games off the bench for Saints and then got the shout to England the set up for that series of matches, so my attitude was I’m just really gonna take this opportunity and throw everything into my performance. I’d like to think that I contributed and demonstrated what I can bring, especially given the disappointing set of results but I guess I’ll know the answer to that question on Monday when the squad announcement comes out.
“However, one thing I will make clear – there was a few compliments about me perhaps being suited to that finishing role in the 23, but I want to start. I don’t care what people say about the squads and matchday 23s, my goal is to be one of the starting locks and that’s the next big step and something I have to prove I am capable of doing.”
Points of difference
Ribbans’ two caps thus far came as a replacement in both the New Zealand and South African Test matches. On debut, a 20 minute impact stint saw the lock throw out one of the most memorable offloads of the year, as he took the ball up in carry in a midfield phase attack, beat the first line of defence and delivered the most outrageous back door pass to Owen Farrell who sent Freddie Steward over on the right wing.
“Yep, I have to say I’ve had some stick about that – the boys told me I need to remain a lock and take contact next time and so on!” Ribbans quipped.
Nothing to see here. Just David Ribbans playing the Saints way. pic.twitter.com/aSuAAuelQL
— Tom Vickers (@WheresTommyV) November 19, 2022
“But, joking aside, I’ve spoken about this before in a couple of interviews and said the same thing – this is something that we train at Saints, the way we play the game and the philosophy of our team. All or any of our forwards here could probably do it and have the skill sets to execute because of our focus on ball handling and skill training. I just think at that point into the game, we were so far behind New Zealand that was worth giving it a shot. We felt like all shackles off and we needed to try something different and it came off and, luckily for me, things like that look great on TV!
“The key here is if you’re selected at international level then there’s a reason why you’ve been picked and that’s almost certainly down to your club form. Obviously, there’s slight tweaks bedding into the England system and adapting to international rugby intensity but ultimately you have to just go out and play your game because that’s why you got selected. And that’s what the Test coaches want to see you do on the big stage – deliver what deliver week in and week out for your club,” he noted.
“It’s also important to take something back from the Test arena into your game and into your own club. It’s the ultimate level and learnings are key. The biggest thing that struck me was the precision of the Test arena; many talk about pace and physicality, and sure, it’s a tough environment but for me it was the accuracy and precision of the Test players that was my biggest learning. Margins are so close at that level – a centimetre at lineout time, a fraction of a second in tackle speed – it’s all amplified and becomes such a science.
“I think in Premiership games there’s a lot bigger margin of error which creates more opportunities. You know, when a penalty goes one way, someone scores a try against you, it’s quite easy to score one back and level the scores and we’re back in the match.
“With England every decision – and sometimes it’s even those micro decisions, the unconscious ones-all of those that you make on the field have a massive impact to outcomes – there’s no hiding at that level, it’s pressure every second. It was a big eye opener to me, and I’ve tried to bring that back to Saints and impress on the guys how much the little things matter, and of course, to embed that accuracy in my own game,” confirmed Ribbans.
“When you put this in a Northampton context, we know that on our day we’re one of the best teams in Europe and we are committed to playing the way that’s in the DNA Chris Boyd created a few years back. Fun is a key element – bringing pressure through attack and excitement is something we enjoy. However, look back at the semi-final against Leicester Tigers last season and if we’d have managed to be more accurate, especially in those first 25 minutes, then things may have been wholly different.
“Please understand, in the Boydy era, it was a live or die by the sword of attack. Most of the time it got us into semi-final positions, but there’s a feeling in the group now we really want to get over the line into silverware – and part of my job is to use my Test experience to enable that.
“With Phil Dowson and Sam Vesty installed, we’re in a bit of a transition period where we still play the free flowing rugby that everyone loves and is in our DNA, but are trying to have to situational awareness to know when to be a little bit smarter, how to be wholly accurate and how to win those really crucial games.
David Ribbans goes full Fijian second rower for @SaintsRugby #SaffasAbroad pic.twitter.com/CuX9DQp9PG
— Jared Wright (@jaredwright17) December 6, 2020
“There’s been a real emphasis of trying to find that balance. We realise now that without winning collisions and finishing opportunities with accuracy, we won’t win leagues and cups. When we do well in those areas, we are a very attractive side, but we need accuracy in breakdown and collision dominance to fuel our attack. In cricketing terms, you need to look at the pitch and the bowling before you attack – if you’re a couple of wickets down, you play with more circumspection and grit until the right time to attack comes, and that’s exactly how we’re approaching this,” Ribbans enthused.
Borthers and beyond
“We met up last week in Gloucester for the first time with Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Obviously it will be interesting but the biggest thing I noticed was the ‘hearts and minds’ approach and given timings, that approach is understandable. I think ultimately English rugby fans would like to see the free flowing rugby they see week in and week out in the Premiership and Steve was very clear about that engagement process with the fans being key,” the lock said.
“Steve wants us to play for each other, for the team and for badge. I just got this real sense of passion from him – it was really powerful and impressive. I know what we could create for the supporters if we, as a team, can harness and deliver that togetherness and that passion that Steve and Kevin are creating. I’m excited to see where this team can go and am really hoping to be part of that opportunity on Monday morning.
“At the start of the season, I set myself three goals – to get a cap and play regularly, win the Six Nations and to win silverware in the Premiership. Each one of those is almost reliant on the other – and hopefully with form and fitness, plus the learning I am absorbing from international duty, I can achieve a couple, or even all of them,” Ribbans concluded.
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