The Wales v England match this weekend is not only vital for the Six Nations, but also for the British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, as several players go head to head for a place on the plane Down Under. Head coach Warren Gatland has said in the press recently that Saturday's championship decider isn't a 'trial' game… it's merely a trial game. Make of that what you will, but leaving his bizarre mind games aside, here are four key battles that could determine not only the outcome of the game but who gets on that plane to Australia in June.
Adam Jones v Dan Cole
Barring injury, these two are nailed on to tour - the only thing left to decide is who starts the tests. They have been the best tight-heads in the hemisphere, and arguably the world, for a couple of seasons now, but their armouries contain different skillsets. Jones is a workhorse who can carry strongly and makes a lot of tackles.
Cole, as has been mentioned umpteen times this championship, is the best front row forward in the world when it comes to breakdowns. He makes two or three turnovers a game, providing an invaluable source of ball for his team. Against the many 'fetchers' in the Australian ranks, that could be vital.
If the scrum can avoid descending into farce (over to you, Steve Walsh) it will be a fierce battle.
Sam Warburton v Chris Robshaw
This is potentially a shootout for the Lions captaincy. A year ago, after leading Wales to a Grand Slam, Sam Warburton was said to be nailed on for the armband. This year, one game stands between Robshaw and doing the same thing. While Warburton looked back to something near his best against Scotland last week, surely Gatland would be hard-pressed to ignore the leadership claims of a man who had masterminded a Grand Slam.
In his pomp Warburton is a better breakdown ball-snatcher, but Robshaw's tackle count and exemplary link play make him a more rounded option. For the Lions, it could come down to the balance they are trying to strike in the back-row.
Mike Phillips v Ben Youngs
Scrum-half is one of the most open positions at the moment, with no one head and shoulders above the rest. Phillips and Youngs are strikingly different players. The Welshman is very physical and at times can resemble a back-row forward. His service is not the zippiest, but he will not be intimidated by anyone.
Youngs is a more traditional number nine, nippy around the fringes with frightening acceleration and a fizzing pass. With Greig Laidlaw and Conor Murray, not to mention Youngs' England rival Danny Care, all in the mix, both men know they need a big performance in Cardiff.
George North v Chris Ashton
North is a left wing while Ashton plays on the right flank, meaning these two will literally be facing off on Saturday. Serious question marks have been raised over the England winger's defence in the championship so far, and North, a giant of a man, will be licking his lips at the prospect of testing him out.
Of course, this battle taking place presupposes that the ball will actually make it out to the wingers - something that hasn't been particularly commonplace so far this Six Nations. Having said that, both men work hard to get off their wings and look for the ball, so expect them to be plenty involved. North has been in better form of late, and Ashton will know that there is a lot riding on this game for him.
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