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Fiery Webb is relishing battle with Murray for Lions shirt


By Ruaidhri O'Connor

The race for the Lions’ No.9 shirt took a dramatic and most unfortunate turn over the 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 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. 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 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.

Webb is happy for the expectation to sit on the 28-year-old Irishman’s shoulders.

“Conor’s been there, done it before,” he said. “He’s been a Lion before, so I’m the underdog. I’m looking forward to it.

“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.

“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, so he’s a world-class player.”

Youngs revealed that his sister-in-law has terminal cancer and 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. Family comes first and I wish Tom and Ben all the best,” Webb said.

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.

“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.

“I’d three very good No.9s in front of me, and took bits of their games and put them into mine.”

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 try out different personnel.

“We’ve (Webb and Biggar) come a long way, going back to the Ospreys U16s.”

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.

“There’s a couple who haven’t been there, so the senior boys will speak to them and say that it’s going to be hostile and loud,” he said. “We need to get a grip on the game early on and hopefully keep them very quiet.”

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