Thursday 14 December 2017

Big two banking on All Black model to get back to top

Rhys Webb, here tackling Fergus McFadden last season, is looking forward to Ospreys’ clash with Leinster in the RDS tomorrow. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Rhys Webb, here tackling Fergus McFadden last season, is looking forward to Ospreys’ clash with Leinster in the RDS tomorrow. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

When Glasgow Warriors played Connacht twice at the end of the season, both Gregor Townsend and Pat Lam spoke about how similar to two teams' game-plans were.

When Glasgow won their first title in 2015, Munster couldn't live with their wide patterns and the linking of backs and forwards and last May's final was a repeat as Connacht ran rings around Leinster.

Before the Scottish side's breakthrough success in 2015 and Connacht's title win last season, the league was dominated by the Ospreys and Leinster.

This is the first time since 2005 that neither of them have won the league in successive years.

Tomorrow night, the two most successful teams in the Guinness Pro12 come face to face for the first time this season at the RDS with the Welsh region arriving to Dublin in flying form after securing the maximum 15 points in their opening three games.

The fixture list has been kind, but in dominating possession against Zebre, Connacht and Treviso and scoring 21 tries while conceding just three, they have demonstrated their intent for the campaign.

Leinster's form is less spectacular, but there has been an increase in forwards passing the ball and linking the play as Leo Cullen learns from Graham Henry's stint in the summer and looks to improve their attacking plan.

The focus on skills was a constant theme during Connacht's historic league win and it is being repeated in Swansea and Dublin as the league's big two look to restate their dominance.

"The boys have worked hard in pre-season on their skills, just both forwards and backs being comfortable and confident with that ball in hand," Wales scrum-half Rhys Webb said yesterday.

"It's been quite pleasing in the first three games, we've seen some great skills from both forwards and backs.

"People might question the opposition we've played against, but this weekend is a completely different challenge to what we've faced in the first three games and we're trying to cover all the basics this weekend.

"The game is pretty simple and everyone enjoys having the ball in hand. Look, you want to have good runs, you want to be able to score good tries because in most teams there's that mindset with forwards that they don't just have to carry the ball all the time, they have the ability to pass it.

"They have got the ability to pass it, to move the ball. That's been a big work-on for us, we've got some skilful players in our forwards and we're just giving them the licence to play what's in front of them.

"If it's on, they'll move it and they've got that skill-set then to throw miss passes or just simple hands.

"It's been a big work-on this season, we've worked hard on our skills and it's come off in the last few games."

As Sean Cronin explained earlier this week, the Leinster forwards have also been working hard on their skills in the hope of improving their try-scoring potential.

Every Saturday morning, the best team in the world give another demonstration of how the full-court press can work when executed to perfection.

Ireland will get a chance to see just how good New Zealand are in November, while Webb saw at first hand how good they can be during the three-Test whitewash Wales suffered against the All Blacks in June.

"Everyone wants to play a high-intensity game, but then again it comes to game management, control of the game, the scoreboard and so forth," he said. "It's about being smart about the way you go about it, if it's on to play we play; if it's not it's not.

"It's a pretty simple game, everyone wants to score tries and make it an exciting game.

"But if you look at New Zealand, they probably kick the ball more than any other nation, so it's what they do with turnovers and that sort of thing.

"For the first two Tests we felt good, we felt strong and maybe lacked the concentration maybe for five or 10 minutes where we switched off and New Zealand punished us.

"The first lesson we learnt is that we've got to be focused, clinical and accurate for 80 minutes against the best team in the world."

Webb appears to be Conor Murray's principal rival for the Lions No 9 shirt, but he is too canny to get caught up in talk of the end-of-season tour this early in the season.

Tomorrow, we should see how Johnny Sexton adapts to Leinster's new system as he faces up to Dan Biggar at the RDS in a Lions head-to-head.

"They're both world-class players," Webb said.

"I'm fortunate to play with Dan week in, week out and we know how big of a threat Johnny is, the way he controls the game and can punish teams. He's been there and done it, but they're both quality outside-halves.

"They're very similar players, both good playmakers who are both good tactically and there's not a huge difference between them."

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