Russell Webb was three years old when the British left Hong Kong in 1997.
He remembers the legacy of Victorian style architecture in his hometown and the ubiquity of English-language signs and shops. He remembers speaking Cantonese, his mother tongue, though right now he prefers English. He remembers his dad and other expats from various continents playing rugby together, united by their love of a game kindled somewhere else.
“I call it Asia’s world city,” says Webb. “I don’t think you could tell it was British now. The world has now influenced Hong Kong.”
So too has the world influenced Russell Webb.
From Hong Kong to England to Strawberry Canyon, rugby has taken the young face of the Cal rugby team around the world. And he’s just 19 years old.
“I always tell Russell,” his father, Lawrence, says. “‘Rugby is your focus today, but trust me, as you mature and as you change, business is sports for grownups.”
The freshman has come a long way, but he still has a long way to go.
At 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds, Webb is a small player in a game played mostly by large men. His mother is from Hong Kong, but his father is from a small town in England. He looks Chinese, but he speaks with a British accent so ingrained he has to catch himself when he crosses up his cultural lingo.
“I don’t know how many times I’ve had to tell that story,” he says of his combination of accent and appearance, “just to tell people. People get confused.”
Rugby is the one aspect of his life where the confusion disappears. Webb is adept in the tactics and tricks of his trade. Often the smallest man on the pitch, Webb compensates for his size with finesse, speed, and a dedication to the sport.
“He’s a very mature kind of rugby soul,” says Cal head coach Jack Clark, “and he’s got good skills. I think his teammates have a lot of confidence in him, and I think that says quite a bit.”
Russell’s passion for rugby was passed down at the behest of his father, Lawrence, a global finance executive. Having developed a passion for the game at an early age, Lawrence’s passion for the game continued after meeting his wife and moving to Hong Kong.
Though a back injury forced Lawrence to quit the game early, Russell’s father passed down his passion for the game to his son.
“I think that’s what kind of made him put us into rugby, because he couldn’t play,” says Russell. “So he was like, ‘If I can’t play, my son’s going to play.’”
After years of club rugby in Hong Kong, Russell started honing his skills halfway around the world. At the age of 14, Russell transferred to Tonbridge School in England, a boarding school which he calls “one of the top five rugby schools” in the country.
But in his father’s native land, a country where he admits he “fit in perfectly,” something was missing.
England was home, but unlike Hong Kong, it wasn’t “home-home.” Rather than homesick, Russell was wanderlust. And boarding schools are tough places for those with wanderlust.
Russell’s passport has been stamped many times. In between school sessions, the Webbs made a habit of taking their sons around the world — to Canada, England, mainland China. For rugby, Russell became familiarized with the Asian Pacific on various tours and camps, from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore to New Zealand.
“The more you travel,” says Lawrence, “the more your eyes open to different cultures, different experiences, the harder it is to go back home.”
But it’s one thing to visit another country on an abbreviated stay, to see the world with a camera around your neck, or an athletic bag in tow.
It’s another thing altogether to create a completely new life somewhere else.
Staying in England for university was never an option. For Webb, staying in one place has never been an option.
“I think I always wanted to come to America,” says Webb, “just because it’d be a new experience.”
Cal was the natural choice. In a sea of young rugby campers two summers ago, the 17-year-old Webb made an indelible impression on Clark.
“He did very well,” said Clark.“He won an award, ‘Best and Fairest,’ and we thought out of 175 campers that he was the top camper.”
On the deepest college rugby team in the country, Webb has already earned regular minutes, many of which have come in key matches. In the only competitive matchup the Bears have played so far this season, a Feb. 16 match against the University of British Columbia, he was the only underclassman in the starting lineup.
Webb played all 80 minutes. The Bears won, 28-18.
“Some of our very best players have gotten a little bit of time early in their careers,” says Clark. “But I think it’s pretty rare that freshmen would come in and start at flyhalf in some big games like UBC.”
Webb’s future is filled with the hazy uncertainty you’d expect from a college freshman. He’s mulled the Olympics, but Hong Kong’s team might not even qualify — if Webb makes the cut at all. He wants to study international relations and business, but his academic goals are still vague.
The only certainty is that he won’t be playing rugby professionally.
“He’s got a kind of sharp, practical mind,” says Lawrence. “We’ll see how it develops in the years to come.”
Still, Webb is wary of looking too far ahead.
“I don’t want to think about (the future) now. I just want to think about staying on this Cal team the next four years, five years maybe, playing Cal rugby.”
“If you’re not going to focus on the present, how can you focus on something that’s so far away?”
The real story of Russell Webb has yet to be told. His inclination for new experiences has brought him across three continents. His passion for rugby has led him to Cal. The only question left is: what’s next?
He just needs the time to finish creating what he’s already started. Rugby has already taken him pretty far.