Ireland v Wales: The back-row battle
Ireland's Six Nations clash with Wales on Sunday is not short of interesting sub-plots and storylines.
But even 16 months out from the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, the back-row battle is ripe with intrigue.
Ireland duo Jamie Heaslip and Stephen Ferris have already played for the Lions, in South Africa in 2009, while team-mate Sean O'Brien and Wales opponents Sam Warburton and Toby Faletau (plus the injured Dan Lydiate) are also strong contenders - fitness and form permitting - to feature on the next trip down under.
"If you were picking a Lions squad tomorrow, you would be hard pushed to leave out any of them; they are all phenomenal players," says former Wales and Lions flanker Martyn Williams, who won the last of his 99 Wales caps last August.
Williams has played alongside or against (and in some cases both) all of the back-rowers whose contest at Dublin's Aviva Stadium will go a long way to deciding the outcome. The Welsh legend gives us his lowdown on the individuals involved.
Wales successfully negated the threat of Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris in their World Cup quarter-final. Photo: Getty
IRELAND - STEPHEN FERRIS (AGE 26, 6ft 4in, 17st 8lb, CAPS 30, including 9 in 6N): He is an absolute beast. I got to know him on the Lions trip to South Africa (in 2009) and he would definitely have started in the Tests if he hadn't got injured. He has been unlucky with injuries but the way he plays, he is going to pick them up - he only knows one way. He is as hard as nails and so dynamic, and has been in outstanding form for Ulster. Even when Ulster were not as strong as they are now, he still stood out.
WALES - RYAN JONES (AGE 30, 6ft 5in, 17st 13lb, CAPS 58 - 27 in 6N): Dan Lydiate has become integral to Wales in the last 18 months with his graft and hard work, and when you do a de-brief on a Monday morning and his stats come up, you realise what a huge cog he is in the team. As much as he will be missed, this is one position where we have good strength in depth. Ryan is similar to Dan; his work-rate is phenomenal - his tackling, his carrying. He is a natural leader and one of the most experienced guys now Shane [Williams] has gone. He showed with a man-of-the-match display in the World Cup third/fourth place play-off what he still has to offer. Whether starting or coming off the bench, he is a huge part of the squad, helping the younger guys.
IRELAND - SEAN O'BRIEN (AGE 24, 6ft 2in, 16st, 13lb CAPS 15 - 6 in 6N): Sean exploded on to the scene last season but I remember playing against him a few times when he was a young kid and thinking 'This lad is a handful'. His ball-carrying is second to none - he always offers himself and constantly gets over the gain line, he is an absolute handful. I think his preferred position is six, where he gets more freedom and is more effective as a carrier, rather than having to hit so many rucks and clear-outs. If you are not on the front foot as a seven, it is more difficult to get your hands on the ball. Ferris and O'Brien both excel at six but can equally play at seven and I suspect they will play 'left and right'.
WALES - SAM WARBURTON (AGE 23, 6ft 2in, 16st 3lb, CAPS 24 - 8 in 6N): He is absolutely world-class. Him and Dan [Lydiate] are two of the real modern-day pros -so professional on and off the field, and they are reaping the rewards. They analyse games so well. Sam maybe surprised a few people outside the UK at the World Cup but he didn't surprise me. He was outstanding but he has been doing that for a while, and has been brilliant for the Blues since he came back, particularly in the big European games. He has got the nod as captain again which is great for him. He leads by example and has an old head on young shoulders. He is very mature, very well spoken, and is totally comfortable with everything that goes with the job. What works in Warby's favour is that he is quite laid-back, and like with all great players, it doesn't matter what age you are, just the way he plays is good enough.
IRELAND - JAMIE HEASLIP (AGE 28, 6ft 3in, 17st 1lb, CAPS 43 - 19 in 6N): I think he is world class. With Sergio Parisse and Imanol Harinordoquy, as well as Toby [Faletau], you have four of the best number eights in the world in the tournament. Jamie is right up there - his work in the contact area, turning ball over, his line-out work, is all top drawer. The thing that amazes me is he always seems to play - you very rarely see him have a week off, he always fronts up, his durability is awesome. I think he is the heartbeat of the Leinster and Ireland teams. He gives them go-forward, he is very vocal and plays a massive role pulling them together as a back row. The bigger the occasion, the better he plays, which is always a sign of a good player.
WALES - TOBY FALETAU (AGE 21, 6ft 2in, 17st, CAPS 11 - 0 in 6N): He is phenomenal, particularly when you take into account that his first major tournament was the World Cup. For me he is the most naturally gifted rugby player I have ever played with. A lot of the time you get great athletes who are not perhaps the most natural rugby players, and vice-versa. But he has got the whole package. Everything comes so easily to him. He worked really hard with the conditioning coaches after he first came into the Wales set-up last summer, and has just been unbelievable since. When you see him playing in a sometimes struggling Dragons side, you can imagine what he would do in one of the top teams. But he is the sort of player you can build a franchise around, he is that good. He is very quiet, but he just loves the game of rugby, he loves training, and he has been in outstanding form since the World Cup.
So who will come out on top in Dublin? Let's hear your views.
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