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Wales v England - Battle of the scrum-halves

Mike Phillips and Ben Youngs
Phillips (left) takes on Youngs in a key battle at the Millennium Stadium on Friday

By Mike Henson

In a historic clash laced with plenty of modern feuds, the chance to compare Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips and England counterpart Ben Youngs may be the most intriguing attraction in Cardiff on Friday.

One of those paying particular attention will be former England number nine Harry Ellis.

Two years ago, on their last trip to the Millennium Stadium, he was the one lining up opposite Phillips.

The 28-year-old, who was forced to retire last July after a series of knee injuries, was a team-mate of the Welshman on the 2009 Lions tour to South Africa, and as his own career was cruelly cut short, he witnessed the rapid rise of Leicester club-mate and rival Youngs.

"I'm very much looking forward to watching those two go head to head. Both can make something out of nothing," Ellis, now tackling a sports science course at Loughborough College, told BBC Sport.

SO WHY ALL THE FUSS OVER YOUNGS?

Ellis might have had a sneak preview of Youngs' burgeoning talent, but the buzz surrounding the 21-year-old is now unavoidable.

A try on his first Test start as England triumphed 21-20 against Australia in Sydney last June was followed by an audacious sidestep in front of his own posts that led to Chris Ashton's length-of-the-field try in the return victory at Twickenham in November.

"Ben was just coming through in my last season at Leicester, but he is playing really well at the moment," says Ellis. "In my eyes he is probably the benchmark in Europe.

"He has got the vision and that good breaking ability along with the speed and the quickness off the mark to out-play people.

"He is also very confident for his age, a lot more so than I was at that age. He's got a very old head on young shoulders."

A TASTE FOR THE LIMELIGHT THEN?

Youngs' appearance amongst designer handbags and Russian sushi in the Observer's cultural highlights of 2011 suggested he now occupies a different place among the sporting fraternity.

Ben Youngs
Youngs celebrates his try in the 32-18 win over Scarlets

Certainly his mimed suggestion that Scarlets fans could keep their thoughts to themselves after scoring in Leicester's Heineken Cup win in Llanelli last month will have been noted by plenty in Friday's capacity crowd.

Phillips is also used to attracting attention, whether it be warding off the overtures of Springbok enforcer Bakkies Botha or stepping out with soul singer Duffy.

On the pitch his spiky battles with the Springboks' Fourie du Preez in the Lions' series defeat established him as one of the finest nines in the world, or - when Phillips was asked recently - "in the top one".

But Ellis insists neither are really the types to court the limelight.

"They are both quite quiet actually," he says. "But they are both confident on the pitch and that is where it matters."

FAIR TO SAY WE CAN EXPECT A BIT OF BANTER?

Youngs predicts Phillips will let him know just how confident he is when they meet on the pitch.

"I expect him to be physical with me and maybe a bit of sledging but it is part of the game. There will be a bit of banter around the scrum and he will probably try and push me about a bit," he said.

"As long as you know what is coming your way you can prepare to be in the right place and not be put off by it.

"There is nothing wrong with a bit of niggle now and then."

PHILLIPS TAKES A BIT OF STOPPING THOUGH, DOESN'T HE?

While Wales will have to guard carefully around the fringes to counter Youngs' darting breaks, the taller, heavier Phillips' powerful hand-off can help him barge his way past opponents into space.

MIKE PHILLIPS v BEN YOUNGS
28 ----------- Age ------------- 21
Ospreys ----- Club ----- Leicester
2003 ------ Test debut ------ 2010
17 ---- Six Nations games ----- 1
20 -------- Test points ---------- 5

As well as height and weight, Youngs is giving away a whole stack of experience to Phillips, but Ellis believes the individual aspects of their games are closely matched.

"They are both good passers of the ball and both good kickers of the ball, so I think that is a like for like, but Mike is very different as a player to Ben.

"He has got the physical attributes. He is 6ft 3in and as a scrum-half it is very rare to play against someone of that size.

"I've had the opportunity to play against him and he is pretty much a handful.

"He is deceptively quick but he just has that little extra something in that he is a big guy and it is always good having somebody that size, especially when the pack is getting beaten. He is like an extra forward."

SO IF YOU HAD TO PICK A LIONS TEAM TOMORROW, WHO WOULD GET THE NOD?

"It is too close to call to be honest because they are both great players," Ellis concludes.

"It all depends on the forwards and if they provide good ball to them.

"Mike obviously has that little bit more experience and has a hell of a lot more caps for his country than Ben, but if you don't try, you never know."

By the end of Friday evening, once Phillips has faced up to to his young pretender, we should have a better idea.



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see also
Wales pick Hook in full-back role
02 Feb 11 |  Welsh
Flanker Wood handed England debut
02 Feb 11 |  Rugby Union
Phillips relishes fresh start
25 Jan 11 |  Welsh
Scrum-half Ellis forced to retire
08 Jul 10 |  Leicester
Youngs shock at England elevation
10 Mar 10 |  Leicester


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