Rhys Webb is still the same “cheeky” scrum-half of 12 years ago, according to the former Wales U20s teammate who shared one of the team’s greatest – and most controversial – victories.
Haydyn Pugh was alongside Webb, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Jonathan Davies in a national age group side captained by Sam Warburton.
Five future British and Irish Test Lions were in the Wales U20s team that beat France in the quarter-finals of the 2008 Junior World Championship – a drama-packed encounter that is being shown again on S4C on this evening (May 4).
That Wales U20 side were so strong that a sixth Lion, Justin Tipuric, had to be content with a place on the bench.
The match is remembered as much for the magnificent Welsh comeback – that took them from 19-9 behind to a 29-23 triumph – as it is for the mass brawl that followed immediately afterwards.
One minute Halfpenny is cavorting across the Liberty Stadium turf, having dived over for the winning try in the eighth minute of injury time. The next, he is trying to pull back his teammates who are involved in an almighty punch-up with the French.
⭐️ SÊR Y DYFODOL ⭐️
Faint o sêr tîm Dan 20 Cymru ’08 allwch chi eu henwi? 🏴
How many of these baby faces can you name? 👶😂
— S4C Chwaraeon 🏴 (@S4Cchwaraeon) May 4, 2020
Second row Pugh, nowadays captain of Carmarthen Quins, was in the middle of things and recalls it was current Wales scrum-half Webb who was riling the opposition.
“Rhys Webb had been causing the French problems, as he does most teams, but he’s also got this cheeky side to his character that just winds up the opposition,” said Pugh.
“He had that side to him then and he’s still got it now. I played in all the age grades with him and it was always a part of what made him so good, that cheekiness.
“I think something Rhys did upset the French – whether it was something he said or a gesture – and it all erupted.
“Suddenly, people were flying in from everywhere. There were people getting involved who weren’t even on the benches, and the next moment they were all wrapped in on it.
“The interesting thing was that our squad and the French were staying in the same hotel in Swansea. But the beauty of the game of rugby is that even though things had become so intense, we ended up having a few drinks with the French players and taking pictures of each other in a Swansea nightclub.”
Pugh feared he had cost Wales the game when he was sent to the sin bin for a high tackle and a lucky bounce off the crossbar from an attempted penalty led to a French try.
But when a French forward was also shown a yellow card, Wales came storming back with two late tries to snatch a thrilling victory.
“It was a fantastic comeback but it underlined the togetherness within that squad,” added Pugh, whose parents were staying with the Halfpenny family after travelling from North Wales.
“We were a really tight group and we obviously had fantastically talented players like Rhys, Leigh, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar and Sam Warburton as our captain, who have all gone on to do incredible things in the game.
“The ethos was that you just didn’t want to let anyone down and it came, in part, from the fantastic coaching group we had under Patrick Horgan and Rob Appleyard.
“We were all very young men, but it was instilled into us that we were in it together and in the end it was that team spirit that got us over the line.”
The match may have been a cliff-hanger with the most unpredictable ending, but even the sight of Warburton being ushered away down the tunnel in the middle of his post-match TV interview was not the end of the story.
The International Rugby Board took a dim view of what had occurred at the final whistle and hit both Unions with a £50,000 fine, suspended for two years.
Wales back row forward Jevon Groves was given a three-week ban, which ended his tournament, while the French were given stiffer punishments for their part in the brawl.
Three French players – Dijbril Camara, Jeremy Braille and Rabah Slimani – were given bans of between nine and 13 weeks.
Monday, May 4, 10.00pm , S4C
DYDDIAU DA – DAN 20: WALES v FRANCE
Highlights from Wales v France in the inaugural World Rugby Under 20’s Championship, which was held in Wales in 2008. In this year’s competition, we saw some stars of the future, including Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny, Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb, playing under Wales captain, Sam Warburton.