The All Blacks conjure up myriad recollections. For an impressionable wannabe scrum-half, it was not so much New Zealand heroics from the base of the pack that instilled vivid memories for Rhys Webb, more the thundering presence of a rampaging Jonah Lomu at the peak of his powers.
“I just remember Lomu scoring tries and running over people,” said Webb, who gets the nod for Wales over Mike Phillips once more this weekend, of his abiding All Blacks memory.
It is 12 years since Lomu last graced his national colours, and illustrious wingers have since been and gone – the most notable of which is arguably the incumbent, Julian Savea, with a near try-per-game ratio for his country in 32 Test appearances.
“Savea’s the same sort of thing,” said Webb. “He brings back memories of watching him [Lomu]. Obviously, they’ve had good wingers over time – those two guys are names that really stood out.”
Savea and the All Blacks ooze an aura of invincibility, one backed up by recent results. Since their shock dismantling by England at the end of the 2012 autumn internationals, Steve Hansen’s side have succumbed to one defeat during this year’s Rugby Championship, the solitary blot in an otherwise unblemished copybook.
In the ensuing weeks, the United States, England and Scotland have tried to rattle them and come up short. On Saturday, Wales have the final opportunity of 2014 to halt the rugby-playing juggernaut that is New Zealand, who are a remarkably short 1-7 with bookmakers to be victorious. But Webb is adamant an upset is in the offing.
“They’ve gone unbeaten for so many games now,” he said. “They’re a world-class team, top of the rankings at the moment, but I think they are there to be taken as well.”
Such a boast from a side that stumbled across the line against Fiji may be bold but Webb has shown every reason to be personally confident with his performances this season for the Ospreys and against Australia, most notably his third-minute dummy from the base of the ruck on flanker Sean McMahon to enable him to run unchallenged for an early try.
Even the most fervent Wales supporter would admit a victory over the world’s best is unlikely this year – after all, it is 61 years since the national side last pulled off that feat.
But Webb rejected the suggestion it was little more than a pipe dream. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Australia nearly pipped them, Scotland put in a real tough performance against them.
“You’ve got to be physical with them. They’ve been getting a bit flustered when people have been going at them. I think if we can play our game plan and not take a backward step and really get into them I think we can put on a good show.”
There is putting on a good show and then there is getting the right result and, with South Africa, the only side in nearly two years to have beaten the All Blacks, lying in wait on the following weekend, the next 10 days look likely to play out another familiar autumn of discontent for Warren Gatland and his players.
Rather than be daunted by history, Webb professes to be excited by it, describing getting the nod over Phillips, for so long Gatland’s first-choice scrum-half, as a “dream come true after so many years watching the All Blacks on the TV”.
There are All Black roots to Webb’s own emergence in the game; he made his Ospreys debut during Justin Marshall’s stint with the region, Marshall by that stage having already become the most capped New Zealand scrum-half with 81 Test appearances.
“At the Ospreys, learning off him was very special,” added Webb. “Just the way he controlled the game and his running side of the game as well. It’s not all about passing, passing, passing but the way he liked to take on defenders as well.
“Closing out games and shouting out games he was really good at, slowing it down at vital times and keeping an eye on the scoreboard and clock, and how he managed the boys around him.”
There will be a similar responsibility on Webb’s burgeoning international half-back partnership with Dan Biggar on Saturday. The pair have memories of missing out to New Zealand at earlier age groups. Saturday is a chance for newer memories, aside from All Black wings thundering through opposition defences.Reuse content