Wales welcome Ireland to the Principality Stadium on Saturday hoping to set in motion what could be the biggest party the country has seen in more than a decade.
Record numbers of fans are expected to arrive in Cardiff for the game, with bars stock-piling beer in anticipation of a home Grand Slam in Warren Gatland’s final Six Nations game in charge.
But Gatland is not the only New Zealander planning to leave the northern hemisphere, and Joe Schmidt will be keen to cap his own championship finale with a victory that would secure an unlikely title for Ireland if England slip up against Scotland.
The visitors have already claimed a minor psychological battle after they stood firm in the face of a request from Wales to close the Principality Stadium roof.
What transpires on Saturday afternoon might now be severely weather-affected, but it will be a game you can’t take your eyes off.
(Continue reading below…)
In seven Welsh-Irish games since Schmidt took the Ireland job, each country has won three times while the 2016 clash at the Aviva Stadium ended in a 16-16 stalemate.
Saturday isn’t the last time the two departing Kiwi coaches will come face-to-face as Wales and Ireland are scheduled to go head-to-head in back-to-back World Cup warm-up matches at the end of the summer. There is also a chance they will meet in the semi-finals in Japan.
But neither Gatland nor Schmidt will let their minds drift further than this Saturday, and a game that offers both so much.
Gatland has the chance to sign off from the Six Nations with a third Grand Slam to cement his place as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – Wales coaches of all time. Schmidt, on the other hand, has one final chance to secure a first Six Nations victory at the Principality Stadium and one that could nick the championship title.
It is clear how much the game means to both, the war of words over whether the roof should be open or shut in Cardiff illustrating how much each wants to gain even the smallest advantage.
Ken Owens (83) vs Rory Best (86)
One of the key battles will be between the two vastly experienced hookers. They know each other very well, having toured New Zealand together with the 2017 Lions. Both are extremely influential figures within their squads and espouse similar no-frills, consistent excellence. Owens scores lower in every facet of the RPI index, but his recent struggles at the lineout will be targeted by Ireland.
Wales captain Jones will equal Gethin Jenkins’ haul of 134 Test caps when he leads his country out against Ireland. Ryan has been the form second row in Europe in the past 18 months – as highlighted by his superior RPI rating – but he is coming up against a master in Cardiff. Jones’ lineout scores will not have been helped by Wales’ misfiring set-piece, but he was able to disrupt a couple of Scottish throws last weekend and will hope to do the same here. Ryan, though, will fancy nicking a couple against the throw himself.
Gareth Anscombe (86) vs Johnny Sexton (92)
Anscombe should take heart from being afforded the opportunity to convert the last-minute penalty that secured victory against Scotland. However, should the expected wind and rain arrive in Cardiff ahead of kick-off, it will not suit his game – that might be behind Ireland’s decision to keep the roof open. Anscombe’s tactical kicking is sure to be tested amid swirling conditions. It’s a scenario that Sexton will most likely relish. The weather might dictate that this is an attritional affair, but those are the situations in which Sexton thrives.
Josh Adams (81) vs Jacob Stockdale (88)
The best winger in this year’s championship goes up against the find of the last Six Nations. Adams has arguably been Wales’ best player as they have ground their way to within one win of the Grand Slam. His influence on Gatland’s side belies his relative inexperience at this level as he has cemented his place in the back three. That is reflected in his score in that category (79), which is three better than his opposite number. Stockdale has a better strike record having scored 14 tries in 18 Tests, but while Adams – who has four in 10 – showcased against Scotland that he is a fine finisher, that is not why he is in the Wales team. He has become integral to the way the hosts’ back three defend, something that is highlighted by his try-saving score of 82 compared to just 29 for Stockdale.
As intimated above, you should not expect much running rugby if the contest unfolds amid inhospitable conditions. It’s more likely that Ireland’s plan will revolve around a kicking game that keeps Wales pinned inside their own half.
From there, Ireland will look to put pressure on the Wales lineout and the conditions will not help the hosts’ forwards find their form at the set-piece. It’s a script that Conor Murray and Sexton know backwards and one that they have enacted with great success in the past.
It will be interesting to see how Wales react to the conditions, though. For all the talk of a more expansive game with Anscombe at fly-half, Gatland’s mantra has always been that you have to earn the right to play wide.
Against England, Wales attacked with one-out runners to tire the opposition defence and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a similar tactic used against Ireland.
Wales cannot let Ireland dictate the tempo of the contest or where it is played, but the breakdown will be important. The Josh Navidi/Justin Tipuric/Ross Moriarty axis has been superb during this tournament and the returning Sean O’Brien is sure to have a busy afternoon.
Wales have not necessarily thrilled the neutral in the way that previous Grand Slam and title-winning sides have, but they have got the job done so far. Their performance against England is a case in point as victory was secured thanks to an expert game plan that was executed to a tee by the players.
Of course, they have not been perfect and the issues at the lineout will give something for Ireland to target. You can expect Schmidt’s side to arrive in Cardiff with a plan to beat Wales and a squad of players confident – and capable – of carrying it out.
It will be a close game and goal-kicking will almost certainly prove pivotal. Gatland said following the opening win against France that this is a Wales team that doesn’t know how to lose at the moment. They should have just enough to edge out Ireland.
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now