Saturday 23 March 2019

Webb to cross Lions with Murray

Ospreys No 9 vows to fight for starting berth ahead of play-off showdown

Scarlets’ Ken Owens, Leinster’s Isa Nacewa, Munster’s Rory Scannell and Ospreys’ Rhys Webb at yesterday’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final launch. Photo: Sportsfile
Scarlets’ Ken Owens, Leinster’s Isa Nacewa, Munster’s Rory Scannell and Ospreys’ Rhys Webb at yesterday’s Guinness PRO12 semi-final launch. Photo: Sportsfile
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

The race for the Lions' No 9 shirt took a dramatic and most unfortunate turn last weekend when Ben Youngs ruled himself out of the running.

Although Greig Laidlaw has replaced the England star, the battle seems to be between two men who will just happen to meet at Thomond Park on Saturday week when Rhys Webb's Ospreys take on Conor Murray's Munster in the Guinness PRO12 play-offs.

Warren Gatland might just take himself along to Limerick to check this one out as fit-again Murray gets a chance to prove his fitness and Webb gets an opportunity to show his class.

Both men were in London yesterday to get kitted out for the tour as the reality that they're departing in three weeks' time sank in.


They are markedly different players: Murray with his control, kicking game and decision making, and Webb with his sharp breaking ability.

Given the All Blacks' strength and depth in the No 9 department, where all three of their squad members would walk into any Test team in the world, it is a crucial selection.

Of the three touring scrum-halves, Murray (pictured, right) is the most experienced and was a replacement for the second and third Tests in Australia four years ago. Gatland has gone on the record as saying he would have been a starter had there been another game.

And Webb is happy for the expectation to sit on the 28-year-old Irishman's shoulders ahead of their duel.

"Conor's been there, done it before," he said. "He's been a Lion before, so I'm kind of the underdog. I'm looking forward to it, I love the challenge.

"I'm not just going to go there and give him a pat on the back and wish him all the best for the Test match, I'm going to go there to push him. We've these games coming up first, but it starts from day one in the camp.

"He is a big threat. He's got a great kicking game and that's something Munster did quite a lot against Saracens off No 9, they kicked around 40 times off No 9. He brings that kicking game and he's a threat when he needs to be a threat, so he's a world-class player."

Youngs revealed that his sister-in-law has terminal cancer and he wants to remain in England to support her and his brother Tom, a Leicester clubmate.

"It's terrible news and I have total respect for Ben. I sent him a message. Like Gats says, family comes first and I wish Tom and Ben all the best," Webb said. "I know Ben quite well through rugby and stuff. It's very sad."

Perhaps understandably given he was speaking to a largely Irish audience, Webb had the modesty turned up to the full but his career trajectory in the last couple of seasons has screamed Lions inclusion from way off.

He made his debut in 2012, and established himself as Mike Phillips' heir two years later; he has been one of the first names on Warren Gatland's team-sheet ever since.

Coming through at the Ospreys, the 28-year-old had an opportunity to learn from 2009 Lions starting scrum-half Phillips, as well as All Black Justin Marshall and Samoa international Kahn Fotuali'i, taking little bits from each and building them into his game.

"I always liked having ball in hand and I looked up to Justin Marshall when I was growing up, coming through the academy, he was No 9 at the Ospreys at the time," he recalled.

"He was great with ball in hand as well, then Mike Phillips came along, and Kahn Fotuali'i came along.

"I'd three very good No 9s in front of me, and took little bits out of their games and put them into mine. Justin was very good, it was a dream come true to meet him and train with him, and learn from him.

"It's not just him, it was Mike, Kahn… he was awesome for me, we were pushing each other for that No 9 jersey, it was neck and neck. If he wasn't playing he'd always helping me, and we remain good friends now."

Like Murray, Webb will travel to New Zealand with an established half-back partner alongside him, having worked with Dan Biggar for years. Yet he doesn't feel like the established combinations will count for a whole lot on tour.

"It doesn't bother me at all," he said of the idea that Murray's partnership with Johnny Sexton is well established.

"There's going to be a lot of games leading up to these Tests, where they'll probably try out different personnel, and they'll know what's best for the Tests.

"We've (Webb and Biggar) come a long way, going back to the Ospreys U-16s, we've come all the way through."

Before all of that, Webb and the Ospreys will return to Thomond Park, where they could and probably should have won a PRO12 semi-final two years ago when their last-gasp winning try was chalked off for a knock-on.

The competition's traditional party poopers don't arrive in great form, but will have Alun-Wyn Jones back for the knock-out game and Webb says they'll travel with little fear of the famous venue.

"When you're younger, it gets on top of you a little but playing in big games for your country you get used to these hostile environments and it's something you've just got to try and blank out," Webb said.

"There's a couple of boys on that team who haven't been there, so the senior boys will speak to them and talk about it during the week that it's going to be hostile and loud.

"It's something we need to blank out, get a grip on the game early on and hopefully keep them very quiet.

"We know what they're going to do. They're very clinical in what they do. They've a big pack, you've got a good No 9 and 10 who control the game, so we know where their strengths are.

"We'll look at their game against Saracens and a couple before that, then the rest will be on ourselves. It's just about getting our stuff right and those fine margins with penalties and errors, knock-ons. We need to be more clinical."

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