Conor Murray v Ben Youngs
The marquee match-up of the game pits two world-class, playmaking scrum-halves, each on top of their game and in tandem with in-form fly-halves Tyler Bleyendaal and Freddie Burns, respectively. Against the All Blacks in Chicago, Murray staked his claim to be the best number nine in the world with a virtuoso performance of quick-thinking, accuracy, and physicality while the smaller Youngs emerged from England’s November Tests as their man of the series as he steered his pack around Twickenham and brilliantly unleashed a devastating backline.
Donnacha Ryan v Ed Slater
If the Murray-Youngs showdown is the headline act then what happens in front of them at Thomond Park today will be crucial if either of the nines is to get the front-foot ball to allow them to express themselves and put on a show worthy of the billing. In Ryan and Slater, each forward pack has totemic figures in the second row from which much of their physical presence stems. Both bring a flanker’s sensibilities to contact in open play while their lineout work is crucial to giving their teams the platform for go-forward ball, or disrupting opposition set-piece.
Jaco Taute v Manu Tuilagi
A study in midfield contrasts with these positional rivals at outside centre. Whenever Tuilagi is discussed, the phrase ‘x factor’ enters the conversation and Leicester will be looking for their fit-again wrecking ball to bring all his explosiveness to bust through tackles and get over the gainline, his presence drawing in defenders and opening holes for others to exploit.
In terms of profile, Taute is the opposite, yet his three caps for the Springboks as a young professional point to the raw talent the South African selectors spotted in 2012. Still only 26, the player signed as a short-term replacement for the injured Francis Saili has brought balance and leadership to Munster’s midfield as well as a robust physicality that will be tested by his opposite number.