Alex Corbisiero v Ben Alexander
With Corbisiero packing down at loosehead and Alexander at tight, these two will spend a lot of time staring daggers at each other. Cobisiero’s selection was arguably one of the bigger surprises, given his late arrival to the tour, but it tells us exactly how Gatland feels about the scrums. The Englishman is one of the best scrummaging looseheads around, and while Mako Vunipola is highly unlucky to have to settle for a bench spot, it is a signal of Gatland’s intent to dominate the set piece. Alexander has his critics in Australia for his scrummaging – with some commentators saying Slipper should have got the nod – so he will have to be at his best to deny Corbisiero getting his way.
Paul O’Connell v James Horwill
This is a titanic battle in the engine room. Horwill is captain of the Aussies and fierce leader, and while O’Connell will not be wearing the armband on Saturday there’s no doubt he will be a huge source of leadership and experience on the pitch. O’Connell runs the line-out, an area that Tuesday’s game against the Brumbies proved is absolutely vital to getting a foothold in the game. Both line-out units will have plenty of options and ability to disrupt opposition ball, so the way they are handled will be vital and makes O’Connell’s role all the more important.
Sam Warburton v Michael Hooper
The back row was such a heated debate coming into the tour, and little has changed. As tour captain, Warburton was always in the driving seat, but such was the form of O’Brien and Tipuric that many expected them to feature. As it is, neither are even on the bench, which only focuses further the spotlight that will be on Warburton’s performance on Saturday. Michael Hooper is a breakdown expert and if the Lions skipper is not on top of his game his team can wave goodbye to a solid attacking platform. With Liam Gill, another traditional openside, on the bench, there will be little respite for Warburton. His performance will be as fascinating as it is vital to the Lions’ chances.
Mike Phillips v Will Genia
Two scrum-halves with completely contrasting styles come together on Saturday. Mike Phillips is big and brash, all power and niggle, while Will Genia’s rapid service, pace and subtlety around the fringes make him the best scrum-half in the world in most peoples’ books. It is an intriguing one, especially with Ben Youngs – a much similar operator to Genia – on the bench. Phillips will look to use his aggression to get under Genia’s skin, but you suspect the Aussie is too experienced and canny an operator to fall for that. Expect to see Youngs come on around the 60 minute mark to run at tired legs, but until then it will be down to the big Welshman to keep Genia quiet. Good luck to him.
Johnny Sexton v James O’Connor
James O’Connor starts just his second international match at fly-half, and no matter how good a player he is that will mean he is likely to make a couple of errors. Johnny Sexton is vastly more experienced and will have to use it all to out-think what is a very capable Wallaby back line. Both O’Connor and Sexton are accomplished running backs, but where Sexton has the edge is his territorial kicking game. With Ioane and Folau on the wings, it will be interesting to see how often he takes this route and looks to turn them. Neither is expected to be goal-kicking, with Halfpenny and Barnes taking those duties respectively, so they will be able to focus on getting their back lines going. If that happens, there are some wonderfully talented attacking footballers on show, and we could be in for a cracking game.
Brian O’Driscoll v Adam Ashley-Cooper
There are 202 caps between these two, which tells you all you need to know about how important they are to their respective sides. Both are defensive generals, but Ashley-Cooper is especially important to the Wallaby defensive plan, given the relative inexperience of the men inside him (O’Connor has plenty of caps, but only one as a front-line defender at 10). Both are equally dangerous in attack, and while Ashley-Cooper might have the edge in pace – given O’Driscoll’s years – the Irishman has a greater capacity to come up with that little bit of brilliance that can change a game. The Australians will remember when exactly that happened in the opening test twelve years ago, and Ashley-Cooper and pals will be intent on keeping an eye on the Irish magician so lightening doesn’t strike twice.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images