By Alan Dymock
THIS SATURDAY Ireland do battle with the robust Italians while Scotland look to consign France to a surprising wooden spoon in Paris. So if you are wanting a Lions fix, looking for an actual one on one match-up where tour contenders try to obliterate each other, you have nowhere to look but the Millennium Stadium.
Justin Tipuric/Sam Warburton v Tom Croft/Chris Robshaw
Effectively we have two opensides versus two blindsides, here. Which may sound unsophisticated, particularly with the rather un-nuanced belief that a good seven always trumps a good six, but in actual fact it will depend on the shape of the game and how momentum swings for us to say who is playing better.
What makes this more difficult is that we do not know who will be playing on which side for Wales, while we know Robshaw will want to get to the ruck before Croft and so will pack down on the openside. Last week Warburton suggested that Rob Howley preferred Warburton in defence and Tipuric in attack, so perhaps when England have ball Warburton will be open, and offensively Tipuric will take up the earlier phases of attack, rather than Warburton.
So with momentum, should England be on top, expect Warburton to be a key figure as he aims to hit Robshaw as he takes those short balls he loves. Should Wales be on top there is a chance that Tipuric will act as tree chopper-in residence given Dan Lydiate’s absence and looking to impress with his work rate, covering Croft and Robshaw. Of course if this is the case – and it’s a big if – Warburton may be asked to play off Tipuric carrying, instead off tearing into the secondary tackler with ball in hand. Depending on his confidence levels he may oblige.
What is so fascinating is that Warburton may be asked to play a fluid game against the synchronised-watch reliability of Robshaw.
Toby Faletau v Tom Wood
There is an evident difference in styles here, with Faletau fond of front foot action and Wood a master of spinning several plates at once.
This is not to say that Faletau is one-dimensional; he is capable of amassing frightening statistics in terms of plunging directly ahead or trying to clap a tackle on as many foes as possible – just look at his 75 tackles in the 2011 Rugby World Cup finals. He can soar and is the pick of the eights in this tournament in terms of headlines.
Wood is a man for all seasons, though. He can wear six, seven or eight on his back, and in truth he is really a six, but he offers utility. He is a catalyst more that anything else; a cog that holds things together. He is a leader too.
Both of these men are fancied to tour in the summer, but on Saturday both will play a huge part in deciding the outcome. One because they are a generator of momentum; the other because they nit everything together.
Mike Phillips v Ben Youngs
Big talking, bold, brawny Mike Phillips may like shouldering responsibility when the game tightens up, but in Ben Youngs he faces an opponent who runs like a greyhound chasing a Ferrari masquerading as a rabbit.
With this game set to ebb and flow, then, it will come down to which player makes the least errors. Or indeed infringes the least. After all, Warren Gatland will want someone who can facilitate his game plan for the Lions, not someone willing to gamble everything for 80 minutes. We all like our nines to be chancers, but with both men likely to tour they need to prove their intellect if we are to decide a hierarchy.
George North v Chris Ashton
The mountainous Scarlet may not be screaming up to the top of official yardage charts or thumping in with try after try, but balance and contribution tends to best stats in international rugby. He is a monstrous man to bring down and frees up space for others.
Nevertheless, the statistics around Ashton’s tackling have brought many to question his actual contribution. He is also not scoring with any great regularity. So when these two clash, something will have to give. There is enough pressure on this fixture – that is patently clear from the different ways North’s “bloodbath” comments are being construed or misconstrued –but with North likely to be going on the tour and Ashton with a chance to make the plane should he impress this weekend, both will be trying their damnedest to make headway.