After Warren Gatland named an unchanged team to face Ireland today, we look at five key battles that could decide the outcome of Saturday’s crucial Six Nations clash at the Millennium stadium.
Rhys Webb v Connor Murray
If it were 2013 then these two would be in pole position for the British and Irish Lions’ nine jersey. Webb, who has now made the scrum-half slot his own ahead of Mike Phillips, has been in red-hot form this season for club and country. Tries against Scotland and England have made the sniping half-back a crucial player for Cymru. He will take on the impressive Murray, who has recently been heralded as “the best tactical box kicker in world rugby” by Australian rugby website The Roar. The Munster man’s ability to manage games and ensure the mercurial Jonny Sexton gets quick ball puts him in The Roar’s World XV – one of only two northern hemisphere players included, both of whom are Irish half-backs.
Dan Biggar v Jonny Sexton
Similar to his partner in crime for Ospreys and Wales, Dan Biggar has made the transition from possible to essential Cymru player this year. Biggar, who last year was vying with Rhys Priestland for a staring berth – with James Hook also snooping around – excelled against France in Wales’s last tie, scoring the deciding try. He will have his work cut out against Sexton, though, who is arguably the world’s best 10 on current form. After making George Ford look like a schoolboy in the win over England, Sexton will be in confident mood going into this weekend’s tie – despite a hamstring strain he is receiving treatment on this week.
Taulupe Faletau v Jamie Heaslip
Not even a cheap shot from the knee of 18st 2lb second-rower Pascal Pape can keep Jamie Heaslip down for long. Ireland’s man-mountain at the back of the scrum looks likely to return to action on Saturday, and will face a tough challenge in Taulupe Faletau. The Tongan-born Faletau has been a revelation for Wales ever since breaking into the side in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Although still only 24 he has amassed 43 caps for Cymru. Two world-class, ball-carrying, combative Number eights going toe-to-toe should make for a mouth-watering contest.
Cian Healy v Samson Lee
Since deposing the king of the Welsh scrum, Samson Lee has flourished. The Scarlets tight-head came through a stern test against the formidable French two weeks ago, but he faces perhaps his biggest challenge in front-row juggernaut Cian Healy this week. The Leinster and Lions loose-head, and part-time DJ, is a strong scrummager who will try and teach the 22-year-old Lee a lesson. Should prove to be a fascinating watch as the young gun takes on an experienced warrior.
Tommy Bowe vs Liam Williams
Last but not least are two of the northern hemisphere’s most exciting wide-men. Liam Williams, who has kept his place ahead of Alex Cuthbert, has been knocking on the door for some time now after a string of impressive performances for the Scarlets. Williams’s electric pace and quick feet brings another dimension to the Welsh back three, and is the perfect foil to the direct running of George North. In Tommy Bowe, Ireland have one of the best defensive wingers in world rugby, though. The former Ospreys man also has a good understanding of the Welsh game and will be a constant threat.