Brent Pope: 'Lose badly and Schmidt may be trying to fix a broken machine'
Both Kiwi coaches, Warren Gatland for Wales and Joe Schmidt for Ireland, will hardly lack motivation for tomorrow’s crucial Six Nations Championship decider in Cardiff.
With six titles between them over many years in charge, this weekend the two coaches will lock horns for presumably the last time. A win for Gatland at home will mean a third Grand Slam Title, and therefore edge him one ahead of Schmidt for a fourth Championship title.
A win for Schmidt and Ireland probably won’t be good enough to win this year’s title, unless Scotland perform a miracle in Twickenham, but it would be Schmidt’s first ever Championship win in Cardiff after four attempts.
Both coaches leave their respective coaching positions after the next World Cup and for home coach Gatland, Cardiff will prove an emotional day, win or lose.
Gatland, after first coaching Ireland, made his name with Wales and over the past decade has been somewhat under-rated in all he has achieved. Wales do not have the luxury of competing well domestically in Europe, with no Welsh province ever achieving European silverware at the top table.
The Irish domestic game is a different story. But despite this lack of provincial depth, Gatland has always managed to keep his Welsh teams ultra-competitive.
He is often criticised for implementing a boring game-plan and granted, Wales don’t score many tries. They are the only side this year apart from Italy not to score a bonus point but even his critics cannot deny the results he has produced.
Against England, Wales conceded only three penalties. They are disciplined, fit and hard-nosed, especially in Cardiff. It might be said of Wales under Gatland that you never beat them, you just score more points.
Gatland stands on the brink of Welsh immortality. To win another Grand Slam and leave Cardiff with a win over Ireland will be his perfect send-off, and send two fingers to New Zealand rugby, given their obvious preference for the Irish coach in recent years.
And the odds are on his side, given that in their history Wales have won nine Grand Slams out of 10 on home soil. A win for Schmidt, however, and Ireland would realise a successful championship overall, especially after such a poor start, and would lead Ireland into the World Cup with renewed confidence and momentum, but also with less expectation.
Lose badly and Schmidt may be trying to fix a broken machine rather than just tinker with a few of the parts, and the slump may stick.
Wales are in this position mainly due to their fantastic win against England but in fairness, that is the only game where they have really performed well.
Wales have struggled at times, a bit like Ireland, apart from that English game, where they were magnificent. Ireland too have struggled to find the sort of form that ranked them even in the minds of the All Blacks as the best team in the world last season.
A bad start against England, and then a couple of grinding wins against Scotland and Italy then saw them deliver a big performance against France to stay in the mix.
Ireland were a lot more clinical last week, and at times they moved through the gears like the Irish side of last season. But it was a horribly one-sided affair in the Aviva and hard to judge as a contest.
Were Ireland really that good or were France that bad? I suggest a little of both.
Ireland will need to gain some aerial dominance to win in Cardiff, and in full-back Liam Williams (the outstanding player of this Six Nations), George North and another new discovery Josh Adams, Wales have a back-three that are not only physically tall but lead the counter-attack as well. If he is instructed to kick, Johnny Sexton will have to find space or grass.
Wales probably have a better-balanced back-row, and a unit that has played together in all the key games, and are excellent at turning ball over.
But they are not as dynamic as the Irish loose forwards and with the inclusion of Seán O’Brien, Ireland can add to that dynamism.
Where Ireland do have an advantage over most teams in the world is in the tight-five and the set-piece plays. Ireland has a better scrum than Wales, and more options in the lineout. Wales rely primarily on just two jumpers, led by inspirational captain Alun Wyn Jones, while thanks to the spring-heeled Peter O’Mahony, Ireland have at least three. Expect Ireland to compete in this area especially at the tail of the lineout, where Wales can struggle.
Ireland’s ball-carrying needs to be more unpredictable. What we have seen thus far won’t cut it against a miserly Sean Edwards-coached Welsh defensive screen.
With James Ryan, CJ Stander and Cian Healy all back and in decent form and O’Brien in the mix, Ireland have enough grunt to dominate the collision areas, something they didn’t do against England.
In the backline Garry Ringrose adds his rugby intelligence, while Bundee Aki will surely relish his battle with fellow Kiwi Hadleigh Parkes.
Wales will have massive support but Ireland have yet to produce that big game we know that they are capable of, a performance like against the All Blacks.
If they wanted extra motivation, they should look no further than the exploits of the outstanding team of this season, the Irish U20s.
Their performances against England and then current world champions France was what rugby is all about – grit, determination, skill and a willingness to play for each other. Tonight in Colwyn Bay this extraordinary team deserves a Grand Slam, the first since 2007.
This Championship, they have come up against massive odds, lost players days before the game but still they have believed. They have never lost the winning picture and are a credit to coach Noel McNamara.
Warren Gatland badly wants to be the King of the Northern Hemisphere. Schmidt is more of a hands-on coach but is also competitive and he too wants to mark his exit with an elusive win in Wales.
Something in my gut says that Schmidt will get it, if Ireland can play a better attacking game.
So Ireland to spoil the Welsh party with a narrow win and Ireland’s U20s to make it a Grand Slam that will compare to the very best.