Rob Webber Exclusive: Jersey's success, thoughts on the Championship, more 'spice' with Ealing and cheering on Sale

Rob Webber honed his coaching skills with the University of Bath and Sandbach before moving to Jersey Reds on a full-time basis
©Simon Hall

Not having an 'ordinary' weekend is something which Rob Webber has become used to. In the last month, there has hardly been time for a Saturday stroll on the beach or a Sunday on the sofa. 

Instead, his days have been consumed by the hard work which has unpinned the recent success of Jersey Reds.

At the end of April, Jersey saw off Championship rivals Ealing Trailfinders 19-13 which left them in pole position to clinch their first-ever second-tier title and seven days later, they did just that after beating Ampthill 43-15.

To kick off May, the Reds toppled Cornish Pirates in the Championship Cup semi-finals and this Saturday, they will renew acquaintances with Ealing as they look to complete a league and cup double.

In truth, it hasn't just been over the last few weeks that the relentless nature of the job has filled the minds - and calendars - of head coach Webber and Jersey Director of Rugby Harvey Biljon. What the club have achieved this term is down to a season of incredible graft.

"We never really spoke about winning the league, but we spoke about working bloody hard and giving it our best shot and just giving a really good account of ourselves every week," Webber tells TRU. "If you do that, you are going to be there or thereabouts aren't you so that's all we tried to do and we pulled it off.

"I have been in rugby all my life. I love it and I absolutely love my job. I'm constantly on it and constantly thinking. After my first year with the club, that Covid year in 2020-21, I was promoted to head coach so it went up again, the demands, and you just have to take it in your stride and manage it.

"[Winning the league] is up there [in Webber's achievements] because of the work you put in. You know, you get home at whatever time in the evening and it starts again. I'm proud of the work that's gone in but also just really, really proud of being part of building the team, part of building the environment and building the culture. That Saturday against Ampthill was an unbelievable day for everyone involved with the club."

It might be a fortnight since that memorable afternoon at Jersey, but it's a day which represents exactly why Webber decided to truly kickstart his coaching career on the Channel Island three years ago.

Just under 3,000 people were packed into the Stade Santander International to watch The Reds create history. While Webber was focused on getting his team over the line, the celebrations and the occasion are something he is still savouring.

"I think what made it so good was that due to a cancelled game over Easter, we actually had to do nine games in a row to get over the line," Webber says. "It sort of built up nicely, needing to keep winning to keep in the hunt so to speak.

"What I think it allowed us to do was constantly reinforce to the lads that the training was working because we were getting results.

"Each week there was something really at stake. The boys should be really proud of themselves and it was a fantastic day. We had a big crowd in the club for the last two or three games, 3,000 plus, which is pretty excellent for a small island. It's just been superb."

By the time the final piece of ticker tape had fallen, Jersey's achievement was there for all to see.

One hundred points, 20 wins, one draw and one defeat but while Webber's side were quite rightly celebrating long into the night, it was hard to escape the sense of 'what if?'

Despite winning the league, Jersey were ineligible for promotion to the Premiership due to the RFU's minimum standards criteria while the future of the Championship also remains uncertain.

"There is probably more detail required than I can probably give you but we had 3,500 people down watching Jersey v Ealing," Webber says. "It was a cracking atmosphere. The drinks were flowing, the supporters were there from both teams. Everyone had a great day and it was a beautiful occasion. It didn't need to be in a 25,000-seater stadium for it to be great.

"We're obviously under no illusions [about going up] that it would be an incredibly tough thing to do but the purist in me means the lads deserve it. They deserve the chance to go and play Sale, Saracens, Leicester, these teams.

"We lost just once all season and, you know, the lads do deserve that opportunity. Unfortunately, they can't do it. They understand it and they accept it but it is tough to take.

"Look, there's obviously lots of movement going on in rugby at the moment, but I just hope that once the dust settles and things are figured out, there's a bit more balance to it all and people are given the right opportunity."

For almost a decade, the team Jersey pipped to top spot, Ealing, have been a constant at the sharp end of the Championship. Title battles with Bristol, London Irish, Newcastle Falcons [during the Covid-19 pandemic-affected season of 2019/20] and even Saracens means any attention around the second-tier has usually involved the Trailfinders.

But with Jersey hitting a century of points and being the latest side to deny Ealing, Webber hopes it can spark more recognition for the Championship.

"Someone else said this [more of a spotlight on the Championship] to me this week and I hadn't necessarily thought about it and I guess you're right because people look at it and go, 'well it's competitive, there is more than one team that is doing well and there's more than one team that's taking it seriously. There's more than one team with ambition. There are more than two by the way!

"I'm not going to sit here and say that I gave the Championship much notice when I was playing in the Premiership [for Wasps, Bath and Sale] and that is what needs to change. Aside from all the finances and everything else that is way above my pay grade to talk about, what needs to change is people in the Premiership don't know enough about the Championship and are not exposed to it enough.

"As soon as that happens, people will actually look at it and go; 'Oh, bloody hell yeah, there are some really good players and coaches and teams in that division.' We have got some great players and some great people working really hard to push the league forward. I am just hoping that in the coming seasons it gets the recognition it's deserved."

The absence of clarity around how the league may look next season - with the participation of Webber's former club Wasps still up in the air - isn't painting a fully positive picture for the Championship, but another titanic tussle between Jersey and Ealing on Saturday should keep the spotlight on the second tier.

The sides have faced off on four occasions this term - twice in the league and twice in the cup - with two wins apiece. However, the newly crowned champions are yet to win away at Ealing, with this weekend's final being held at the Trailfinders' Vallis Way.

"The one monkey we have to get off our backs is beating Ealing away!" chuckles Webber. "It is the one thing we haven't done this year!

"We're under no illusions about how tough it is going to be. They're a fantastic team and I will just nod to Ealing as well. They're giving it a good go and they're doing it properly. They've got a good squad, women's teams, an academy, all of that so you have to say fair play to them.

"It's the fifth time we've played this year which is great because it means you've had five really big games, but I don't think you should be playing the same team five times in a season. That's something that'll be solved next year with the Cup changing but you know, there is a very sort of 'round five and winner takes all' feel to Saturday.

"There will be a bit of spice and a revenge element there. It is 2-2 at the moment but we've had the philosophy of; 'Why not? Why can't we go there and win? Why can't we back it up?'"

So this weekend, Webber will once again be eyeing more silverware while on Sunday, his thoughts will turn to his old side Sale Sharks who are bidding to reach their first Premiership final since 2006.

Following Jersey's title win, Webber had "a few lovely messages" from staff and players at Sale and hopes his former club can also experience some success this term.

"I think that they've been brilliant, haven't they?" Webber, who played over 100 times for the Sharks, adds. "I think that you just have to look at the rugby they've played to see that everyone seems to be on the same page and it's been a pleasure to watch them play.

"They have great talent in the room as well now. Bit of a class with George Ford coming in and boys who have been there a while, but now seem to be playing with a new lease of life like Rob du Preez, coupled with lads who were young thrusters when I was there like Tom Roebuck, [Joe] Carpenter, Sam Dugdale. All of these boys are all flying as fully-fledged Premiership regulars so it is brilliant to see and the fact they are all northern lads as well is superb."

Webber will be heading back to that particular region of England at the end of June to play in Will Cliff's Testimonial where he will "be dusting down the boots" and hoping "for a more touch and pass" style of rugby.

For now, there is one final weekend to negotiate and maybe "a Sunday in charge of childcare watching Sale" after a cup win on Saturday would be the perfect way for Webber to close the book on a 'not so ordinary' campaign.