The Principality Stadium roof will be open, Storm Hannah’s wet and windy weather won’t make for a classic, but Wales will nonetheless be backed by an entire nation in Cardiff this afternoon.
Ireland will no doubt be ready for what is going to hit them, but a special day awaits in the Welsh capital, with the hosts on the verge of their first Grand Slam since 2012. Their leader and former Ireland supremo Warren Gatland will also become the only coach in Six Nations history to have won three Grand Slams should his team come out on top. There is no lack of Welsh motivation.
Gatland’s side are 13 matches unbeaten and haven’t lost since their trip to Dublin in 2018. They boast a fine blend of talented youth and gnarled British & Irish Lions experience and after a first unbeaten November, a Grand Slam would provide a real and tangible sign of progress.
It would also send Wales above Ireland and into second in World Rugby’s rankings. Gatland’s skipper Alun Wyn Jones said: “It’s a cliché, but pressure is a privilege, isn’t it? You want to put yourself in this position. Ask any rugby player — this is what you dream about. We’re at home with what is going to be a great atmosphere and these are the occasions you work for.”
The momentum is with Wales. Ireland looked more like the side which claimed Grand Slam glory and beat New Zealand at home last year in their victory over France, but they have coughed and spluttered through the Championship. Wales haven’t convinced entirely either.
And that is what is so intriguing about this match. In Wales, there is very much a feeling Gatland’s side still have one complete performance in them. It hasn’t been seen yet in 2019. Centre Jonathan Davies said: “We have shown glimpses throughout the tournament, but we do feel there is more in us and I hope we can show that.”
The back and forth hoo-ha over the Cardiff roof has been a sideshow to the build-up, but the reality is it will be open to the elements at the request of Joe Schmidt. Serious weather warnings are in place with gale-force winds and torrential downpours expected, all of which will play into the hands of Ireland playmakers Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton.
Still, Wales are nothing if not confident beneath the surface, and rightly so. Their back three have been boosted by the fitness of Liam Williams and they dealt expertly with England’s kicking and aerial game.
“We don’t lose very often on the big occasion,” said Gatland this week, who has admitted in the build-up that his players have been jealous of Ireland’s success in the last 18 months. “I pride myself on the record I’ve had in big matches when it’s really mattered. I even get more of a buzz when people write us off. There are opportunities in life which come around and you have to take them. Often with teams you get one which wants it just that little bit more. If you want something bad enough and you really believe it can happen, it often does.”
There is no doubt any team coached by Gatland thrives on the big stage. He has circled the Welsh wagons in impressive fashion in the last year by building a fine group. His latest miracle has been to help his players brush off uncertainty over their domestic futures following the abandonment of a proposed merger between the Ospreys and the Scarlets. Political chaos continues in Welsh rugby.
Wales’ players will have their own motivations this afternoon, but it would be a fitting tribute to Gatland’s legacy if his Six Nations career ended as it began — with Grand Slam glory. The Ireland game will be the New Zealander’s 50th and final Championship game in charge of Wales ahead of him leaving after the Japan World Cup.
“It’s Warren’s last Six Nations, but there’s a bit left to go on his contract. We’re not going to let him sail off into the sunset just yet,” Jones added. “It would be nice to be able to do it (a Grand Slam) at home, but there is pressure. We’re very grounded. In every performance we’ve had, there have been areas for improvement.”
With Jones as leader, there is no danger of Wales getting ahead of themselves. Cardiff is expected to be drunk dry by over 270,000 people, with visiting fans travelling down from the Cheltenham Festival. An Irish invasion will attempt to spoil the party, but if Wales can master the wet conditions, it points to a home win, albeit by a narrow margin.