Justin Tipuric ready to push Wales skipper all the way
ATHLETICS had Ovett v Coe, tennis had Borg v McEnroe, boxing had Leonard v Duran.
Now Welsh rugby has Warburton v Tipuric, a rivalry that promises to endure for years and divide supporters in these parts.
Rob Howley seemed to have boxed himself into a corner yesterday with his decision to retain Warburton as Wales's captain for the Six Nations.
Tipuric, after all, hasn't just been in good form. He has been in a league of his own since returning from the frustrations of the autumn series. In three games for the Ospreys in December, home and away against Toulouse and against the Scarlets in Swansea, he put in 49 tackles, missing just two.
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He has been achieving turnovers for fun, carrying strongly and pulling off a passable impersonation of an extra back with his ability to pop up behind the scrum and handle with the dexterity of a centre.
There are few more exciting players in British rugby and it is hard to imagine how anyone who wants to win could contemplate leaving him out.
That said, Warburton is hardly a slouch, either, with his displays at the World Cup and against England at Twickenham last season confirming his quality as a AAA performer in his own right.
So where's Solomon when you need him most?
A possible solution, at a time when Wales are missing the injured Dan Lydiate and Ryan Jones, is to play them both: Warburton at six and Tipuric at seven. It would echo New Zealand's attempt to accommodate Richie McCaw and Marty Holah in the same side at the peak of their careers.
The experiment against Ireland in 2006 was not a success, with Holah, who had taken the field at blindside, never starting another Test.
But with Warburton having figured across the back row during his career, showing himself to be an able ball carrier, Wales might have more joy were they to go down a similar road.
"I would consider playing them both," admitted acting head coach Howley yesterday. "Tipuric has been outstanding, not least against Leicester last weekend.
"I retained Sam as captain because he's a model professional who sets high standards on and off the field. He's learning in the captaincy role and we have spoken over the past week about areas we need to work on as individuals and as a side, but he has a huge respect within the Welsh national team and within the UK generally.
"The one thing you want from your captain is to start and he's certainly our number one."
But judging by Howley's next comment, that doesn't mean he will definitely take the field at No. 7 against Ireland in Cardiff on February 2.
"We'll have to wait and see on that," said the ex-scrum-half.
Hammered by injuries in the second row, in particular, Wales have named Ryan Jones, Lou Reed, Ian Evans, James King, Josh Turnbull and Andrew Coombs, from the Dragons, as engine-room operators for the championship, even though Jones could miss the first two rounds with injury and Evans faces a race to put himself in contention for the Ireland game.
The crocked trio of Alun Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies and Luke Charteris are not included but Howley could summon any or all of them if they return to fitness quickly enough.
Lee Byrne is back in the squad at full-back, while South Africa-born Andries Pretorious gets a call in the back row after completing his residency period.
Howley was also relieved to announce the return of Adam Jones and Craig Mitchell, with the coach believing the pair can help provide Wales with a rock-solid scrum platform.
A big two months beckons for Warren Gatland's deputy.
In the autumn Gatland's return midway through the campaign clouded lines of responsibility and it was often unclear who was holding the reins and taking responsibility, particularly during the first half of the series.
But Howley will have more chance to put his stamp on things in the months ahead. Yesterday, he left little doubt where the buck will stop.
"It is me 100 per cent," he said after announcing Mark Jones had joined Wales's coaching team for the championship.
"I have spoken to Warren. In the autumn I was in charge for two weeks and he came back. It was important to keep him in the loop then and he is still head coach.
"But I'm really looking forward to this campaign and the challenge. I think we have a fantastic coaching team and I have huge respect for all of them."