The last hurdle, the last push, the one match between Wales and yet another Grand Slam is here.
In what promises to be a pulsating encounter, Ireland – the reigning Grand Slam champions – arrive having won their three games since England gave them a rude awakening, aiming to rain on their parade, even if the title is a near impossibility thanks to points differences with England waiting in the wings later.
The rain itself is going to be one of the biggest factors, with much debate over the call from the visitors to opt for the roof of the Principality Stadium to be open. This might have been done to avoid the cauldron like atmosphere that Wales use so often to their advantage, but the forecast is certainly for rain – the Met Office has this as a 70% chance by 2, and a 95% chance for the second half – and there’s a yellow wind warning too.
These two factors are probably in favour of Ireland, who have not moved the ball as well as they did during this Championship as they did through the majority of last year, but who do have a reliable strategy for the hard yards.
Their heavy duty ball carriers were a little off colour against England – although CJ Stander was carrying two horrible injuries from early on – but they have since managed to use their number 1 game plan to better effect.
Against France, the majority of their hard yards came from Iain Henderson, Donncha Ryan, Cian, Healy, Tadhg Furlong, CJ Stander and Bundee Aki and they blew away an admittedly wretched French side, with only two tries in the last five minutes giving the visitors 14 points.
Facing Wales will be oh so different but it is worth remembering that Ireland managed to beat Scotland at Murrayfield, when Furlong, Peter O’Mahony, and Jack Conan were all particularly outstanding, so Schmidt should be able to trust his strategy.
Scotland were in control for large parts of that game, including the first half, when the ball was moving and the exchanges were fast and loose, so the open elements ought to help the visitors, especially with Conor Murray and Johnathan Sexton in better touch against France then they were against either Ireland or Italy.
Wales have their own big carriers of course, and a particularly superb defense that has conceded just six tries and only 58 points, allowing them to edge through their four wins so far. How one sees the performance levels of those wins is upto them; But a comeback from 16-0 down against France in Paris, a win with a completely different starting XV against Italy, a success when they limited an England side that had previously scored 78 points to just 13, and one of only two victories at Murrayfield in the last two years is a record any side would be happy with.
Some might point out that they haven’t cut loose during the tournament but that will be an irrelevance here given the weather and in Dan Biggar they have their own ace in the hole to guide proceedings from 10, a vital resource as he proved against France and also England. Hadleigh Parkes, Johnathan Davies, and Liam Williams have all had extraordinary defensive Championships to boot, and once again they will come to the fore here.
In a game where the set piece is sure to be crucial, Ireland will be looking to target the Welsh lineout. In all but one game Wales have lost at least three lineouts on their own ball, and their lineout success is at 74.4% – the next worst is France on 86.7%. Tipuric, Navidi and Moriarty have had fine, fine Championships but the lineout has been their nadir and Peter O’Mahony and James Ryan will look to target Justin Tipuric, who has taken over 90% of Welsh lineouts in the last two games.
Do that and in a game likely to be this tight they will see a target to victory, but the only thing you can guarantee about this game is that it’ll be tight. There was a penalty between England and Wales with 10 to go and the weather should ensure a heavy duty carryfest here, something which both teams can do. The draw is trading at nearly 20 on Betfair, a back to lay which should get you a run for your money, and perhaps that is worth backing. The points line is now set about right at 32.5 and the money has moved on the tries line too.
1 pt Back-to-lay, Draw (19 Betfair, 20 Betdaq)
1 pt Draw (20/1 general)
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies, 8 Ross Moriarty, 7 Justin Tipuric, 6 Josh Navidi, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (c), 4 Adam Beard, 3 Tomas Francis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Nicky Smith, 18 Dillon Lewis, 19 Jake Ball, 20 Aaron Wainwright, 21 Aled Davies, 22 Dan Biggar, 23 Owen Watkin
Ireland: 15 Rob Kearney, 14 Keith Earls, 13 Garry Ringrose, 12 Bundee Aki, 11 Jacob Stockdale, 10 Jonathan Sexton, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Sean O’Brien, 6 Peter O’Mahony, 5 James Ryan, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 3 Tadhg Furlong, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Cian Healy
Replacements: 16 Niall Scannell, 17 Dave Kilcoyne, 18 Andrew Porter, 19 Quinn Roux, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Kieran Marmion, 22 Jack Carty, 23 Jordan Larmour
Date: Saturday, March 16
Venue: Principality Stadium
Kick-off: 14:45 GMT
Referee: Angus Gardner (Australia)
Assistant Referees: Ben O’Keeffe (New Zealand), Karl Dickson (England)
TMO: Marius Jonker (South Africa)