Rhys Webb will fight Conor Murray every inch of the way for the right to be Warren Gatland’s starting scrum-half come the British and Irish Lions’ Test series against the world champion All Blacks next month.
Murray is the favourite to wear the No. 9 jersey when the first Test kicks off in Auckland on June 24, not just because of his form with club and country but his superb contribution four years ago when the series with Australia was won as well.
Gatland will be able to assess the merits of both men — and Webb is a strong alternative — on Saturday week when the Ospreys pitch up at Thomond Park to face Munster in the semi-final of the Guinness PRO12.
“Conor’s been there, done it before, he’s been a Lion before, so I’m kinda the underdog, I suppose,” said Webb, who is the same age as Murray but has half the number of international caps.
“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 (club) games coming up first, but it starts from day one in the camp.”
Both men will have touched base yesterday as the Lions squad convened for a one-day get-together in England.
Greig Laidlaw will be the squad’s third scrum-half after Ben Youngs withdrew over the weekend for family reasons but Murray is the man in pole position.
“He’s a big threat,” said Webb.
“He’s got a great kicking game and that’s something Munster did quite a lot against Saracens off nine. He brings that kicking game and he’s a threat when he needs to be a threat, so he’s a world-class player.”
Murray’s international partnership with Jonathan Sexton is another factor in his favour given Sexton is expected to start at 10 against New Zealand so the PRO12 run-in offers Webb the opportunity to tilt the conversation back in his favour.
Ospreys approach the Munster game on the back of a desperate run that has delivered just one win and six defeats since the end of March, but there is talk of Alun Wyn Jones returning from the shoulder injury suffered against France in the Six Nations.
That would be an immense boost.
Munster have beaten Ospreys home and away already this season but it is only two years since a knock-on from Webb denied Josh Matavesi what would have been a winning try in injury-time of a PRO12 semi-final that Munster squeezed 21-18.
“Very unlucky,” Webb said with a smile. “But we know it’s going to be a completely different challenge this year. Munster’s season has been up and down with the loss of Anthony Foley, obviously, but he certainly drives them on.
“He’s still with them and they’re playing some great rugby. They’ve shown that by challenging in Europe and they’re top of the PRO12 as it stands, so it’s going to be a tough challenge.”
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