Jonathan Webb interview: From Five Nations grand slam superstar to robotic-arm surgery

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 Pix show knee surgeon and former England rugby international Jonathan Webb at the Nuffield Hospital in Bristol. - JAY WILLIAMS
Pix show knee surgeon and former England rugby international Jonathan Webb at the Nuffield Hospital in Bristol. - JAY WILLIAMS

Jonathan Webb could never have imagined, 30 years ago, back in the days when England and Scotland were busy kicking lumps out of each other in genuinely feisty Five Nations clashes played out to a stormy political backdrop, that he would one day be firm friends with those same hated opponents.

Webb, the former England full back, will be the guest of John Jeffrey at the latter’s home in Kelso, in the Scottish Borders, before next weekend’s Calcutta Cup clash at Murrayfield. And he says he is very much looking forward to catching up with the great Scotland flanker.

“We were sworn enemies back in the day,” Webb admits, smiling. “In fact, JJ would have been absolutely the last person I would ever have imagined being friends with. But he’s a top boy. Gavin [Hastings] too.

“When the dust settles, rugby really is one big family and that’s the best thing about this game of ours.”

Webb has long since swapped slotting penalties with surgical precision to slicing open knees with the same care and attention. The former Bristol and Bath player retired from rugby in 1993 to focus on his medical career and has since gone on to become one of the country’s top consultant orthopaedic surgeons.

In 2011 Webb co-founded Fortius Clinic, the UK's leading orthopaedic and sports medicine group. Now 58, he continues to practise out of clinics in London and Bristol and is as prolific as he ever was on the pitch. On the day we meet at his practice in Clifton, Webb is digesting a cake given to him by his surgical team on the occasion of his 200th operation using a Mako machine; special robotic-assisted technology. He says he reached that number in about two years.

Copy pix show knee surgeon and former England rugby international Jonathan Webb at the Nuffield Hospital in Bristol celebrating his 300th knee operation using the Mako robotic surgical machine Pic Jay Williams 24-01-22 - JAY WILLIAMS
Copy pix show knee surgeon and former England rugby international Jonathan Webb at the Nuffield Hospital in Bristol celebrating his 300th knee operation using the Mako robotic surgical machine Pic Jay Williams 24-01-22 - JAY WILLIAMS

Rugby continues to occupy a large part of his life.

Webb still sees plenty of players in a professional capacity - Bristol’s Semi Radradra was a recent patient - while being actively involved in the administrative side of the game. Last year he was elected to World Rugby’s Executive Committee, on which body he takes a special interest in player welfare, and he does not deny he might one day fancy a tilt at the RFU presidency.

One suspects he would swap it all to be back at Twickenham as a player again, though. “Nothing can beat that feeling,” he admits.

Webb appreciates that feeling better than most. It is exactly 30 years since his annus mirabilis in England shirt, when he scored 63 points as England cantered to a Five Nations grand slam, Webb finishing as the tournament’s top scorer.

But he could so easily have missed it. Webb had pretty much retired once already, three years earlier, after losing his place in the England team to Simon Hodgkinson.

“I was playing crap,” he admits. “Everyone had dropped me. Bristol had dropped me. England had dropped me. Fair play, Hodgy had grabbed his chance with both hands. Meanwhile, I was working my bollocks off as a trainee doctor but struggling on both fronts. I had failed an exam which I had to retake...it was all getting too much so I handed in my notice at Bristol."

It took a phone call from Bath coach Jack Rowell to convince Webb to continue in the game. “No one else believed in me, but Jack believed. And then it was almost like a resurrection in the second half of my career.”

Webb began working with legendary kicking coach Dave Alred, who he credits with making him into the kicker he became ("Looking back it's incredible to think we'd never had a specialist kicking coach before.") And he was part of the Bath team that won the Premiership in 1990-91, 1991-92, and 1992-93, and the Anglo-Welsh Cup in 1990 and 1992.

It was during this period that he won back his England spot, just in time for the 1991 World Cup. “Having lost it all once, it felt so much sweeter the second time around,” he says.

 John Webb of England and John Allen of Scotlandf...26 Oct 1991: Jonathon Webb (left) of England is tackled by John Allen #2 of Scotland during the World Cup semi-final at Murrayfield in Edinburgh, Scotland. England won the match 9-6 - Getty Images
John Webb of England and John Allen of Scotlandf...26 Oct 1991: Jonathon Webb (left) of England is tackled by John Allen #2 of Scotland during the World Cup semi-final at Murrayfield in Edinburgh, Scotland. England won the match 9-6 - Getty Images

It was some group to be part of. That 1992 Five Nations team - fresh from reaching the World Cup final in which Webb kicked England’s only points in a 12-6 defeat by Australia - featured some big characters, teak-tough men such as Dean Richards, Jason Leonard, Mick Skinner, Peter Winterbottom, Jeff Probyn and Wade Dooley, allied to an effective backline that included Dewi Morris, Will Carling, Jerry Guscott and Rory Underwood.

Webb has many happy memories, not all of them printable. These were last days of the amateur game when players were able to indulge in all sorts of tomfoolery and largely get away with it. Webb recalls rooming with Leonard when the Barking prop first emerged on the scene. “I used to room with Hallers [Simon Halliday] mainly," he says. "But in 1991 Geoff [Cooke] had this idea to mix up the forwards and backs. Terrible idea.

"I got put with Jason." Webb laughs. "Properly unreconstructed. I used come back to the room and he’d be on the phone effing and blinding. I thought I’d stumbled on some drugs cartel. And then he’d be like ‘OK, bye mum!’”

He also recalls a tour to Fiji one year when the players tied John Bentley naked to a palm tree, next to an Australian couple trying to have a romantic meal. “He had been annoying everyone singing Chanson d’Amour all tour so his punishment was to be tied to a tree and every time someone clapped their hands he had to sing Chanson d’Amour. He thought that was great.”

Webb remembers the 1992 slam chiefly for England’s infamous 31-13 win at the Parc des Princes, when France were reduced to 13 men in a clash so ill-tempered referee Stephen Hilditch required a police escort when leaving the field. “That France game in 92 was the only game when it crossed my mind that someone was going to get seriously injured,” Webb says. " I remember coming into the line and trying to get it out to Rory but all the defence was closing on him so ran in and scored!"

England, on a roll, had already beaten Scotland 25-7 at Murrayfield and seen off Ireland 38-9 at Twickenham by that stage, the latter game seeing Webb notch two tries, four conversions and two penalties. A final 24-0 victory over Wales at HQ sealed the grand slam and the Triple Crown.

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 30 years,” Webb says. “No doubt we’ll live that era all over again when I go up to stay JJ next week. Those memories and friendships are what it’s all about.”

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