Gerry Thornley: Gatland and Wales primed for red-letter day

The coach and his team are proven big-game performers and Ireland have it all to do

 Saturday’s clash in Cardiff will mark Joe Schmidt’s 30th and last Six Nations game as Ireland’s head coach, and also Warren Gatland’s 50th and last for Wales. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Saturday’s clash in Cardiff will mark Joe Schmidt’s 30th and last Six Nations game as Ireland’s head coach, and also Warren Gatland’s 50th and last for Wales. Photograph: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

Ireland appear to have drawn something of a short straw again.

Playing England first-up they ran into a hugely motivated team who’d had a fortnight to plot their revenge over Ireland for the events of Twickenham on St Patrick’s Day. But whatever about that, now it’s Wales on a roll and seeking a Grand Slam in Cardiff, and history has taught us that this is when the Welsh are usually at their best.

By contrast, the fixtures have pretty much fallen ideally for the Red Dragonhood once they’d ridden their luck on opening night in Paris. So it was that Warren Gatland felt sufficiently emboldened to forecast before the off that if Wales did beat France first up they’d win the title.

It would be dangerous in the extreme to take the respective performances of Wales and Ireland over the weekend as a barometer of what to expect from them both next Saturday. The penultimate leg of a Grand Slam bid is often the ugliest, witness Ireland’s nervy win in Murrayfield in round four of their 2009 Grand Slam.

That first Slam since 1948 was completed a week later in Cardiff thanks to that late drop goal by Ronan O’Gara but it remains the last time Wales were beaten at home on the final day.

Since then they have won all six games they’ve played on the final weekend in what is now the Principality Stadium. This includes the 16-9 win over France in 2012 which sealed their second Grand Slam under Gatland and 11th overall.

A year later, after losing their opening game at home to Ireland, Wales retained their title in a last day shoot-out against England, thereby also denying them the Grand Slam, with a 30-3 win in Cardiff. Granted, Gatland was on an enforced sabbatical then as the Lions head coach, but his imprint was all over that game, and both Edwards and Rob Howley were there.

They also have a core of players who are proven big-game players too. George North, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric and Ken Owens all played that day.

We shouldn’t be surprised. Even in darker days, Wales could suddenly rise from the gloom and ride the crest of a wave. In 2003 they won one match, in 2004 they were whitewashed and in 2005 they won the Grand Slam under Mike Ruddock. A year later, they won one match and finished fifth.

Next Saturday’s clash in Cardiff will mark Joe Schmidt’s 30th and last Six Nations game as Ireland’s head coach, and also Gatland’s 50th and last for Wales.

Wales will be seeking their third Grand Slam with Gatland at the helm, after the triumphs of 2008 and 2012, but they’ve also become way more consistent in his dozen years with them.

Enormous success

In the four Six Nations under Gatland since the 2013, Wales have finished second twice and third twice. In his 49 Championship games, Wales have 31 victories, one draw and 17 losses.

Of course, much of this is also down to Shaun Edwards, with whom Gatland has enjoyed enormous success since they teamed up at Wasps together. Edwards had been there since the start of the 2001-02 season when Gatland came aboard midway through it as an assistant coach to Nigel Melville after his removal from the Irish job by the IRFU.

Wasps were bottom of the table, but Gatland helped steer them to mid-table safety before taking over as head coach when Melville moved on to Gloucester at the end of the season.

Gatland was ahead of the posse in introducing a blitz defence at Connacht and Ireland, and with Edwards as defence coach he had the ideal man to implement and develop his ideas. Over the next three seasons, Wasps won three Premiership titles in succession, along with a European Challenge Cup in 2002-03 and a Heineken Cup in 2003-04.

Gatland signed Eoin Reddan in 2005 before then moving on to Waikato, and Reddan won a Heineken Cup with Edwards as head coach in 2007. On the Second Captains podcast yesterday, Reddan maintained that while Schmidt was the best coach he ever played under, “Gatland and Edwards are the ultimate big day, big game coaches”.

In those three full seasons together at Wasps, including the two legs of the quarter-finals and semi-finals in the Challenge Cup, Wasps played 14 knock-out matches. They won them all. They were possibly the ultimate clutch team we’ve seen in European club rugby in the professional era.

In 2005, a week after losing 45-10 to Leicester at Welford Road in the last round of regular season Premiership games, they beat Sale 43-22 in the semi-finals, and a week on from that they beat Leicester 39-14 in the final at Twickenham.

Tournament team

A true tournament team, Wales have also shown their big-game mentality in World Cups, such as when beating Ireland in the 2011 quarter-finals before unluckily losing to France 9-8 in the semi-finals when Sam Warburton was controversially sent off, and when beating England at Twickenham in the 2015 pool stages. They were also leading South Africa with three minutes remaining in the quarter-finals.

In addition to the Welsh, and ironically in tandem with Andy Farrell, Gatland has also demonstrated his ability to have a Lions squad drawn from four different countries primed for massive games.

Gatland, Edwards, this Wales squad, and the whole of the Welsh rugby fraternity for that matter, will embrace and relish this week and this occasion. They will be perfectly pitched, emotionally, mentally and tactically.

Wales may have to produce a performance every bit as good as they did against England if not better. But you sense they may just do that. So Ireland will have to produce their best performance of the Championship to win this game and so deny Wales and Gatland.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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