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6N: Gatland urges Wales to embrace Grand Slam shot v Ireland

March 14, 2019
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FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, Wales Alun Wyn Jones runs at England during the Six Nations rugby union international match at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Captain Alun Wyn Jones has a chance to win his third Grand Slam, when Wales face-off against Ireland upcoming Saturday March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, FILE)
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FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, Wales Alun Wyn Jones runs at England during the Six Nations rugby union international match at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. Captain Alun Wyn Jones has a chance to win his third Grand Slam, when Wales face-off against Ireland upcoming Saturday March 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Rui Vieira, FILE)

The Grand Slam, Triple Crown, and Six Nations championship are all Wales’ to lose.

For once, Warren Gatland doesn’t mind his side starting as the favorite on Saturday in the decider against Ireland at Principality Stadium.

All week, he’s urged his unbeaten team to embrace their shot at history, just as he has for his last Six Nations match as Wales coach. “We have had a good week and are pretty motivated and upbeat about our chances,” he says.

Because everything is in their favor.

They have momentum. They have won 13 tests in a row over the last 13 months. They haven’t lost at home for 15 months.

While Gatland has been saying they have forgotten how to lose, it’s more that they have become tougher to beat. Twice they have pulled off comeback wins in the championship, against France in Paris, and England in Cardiff. They trailed both at halftime and looked to be out of it.

They have had an extra day to prepare compared to Ireland. They needed it after leaving Edinburgh last weekend bloodied and bruised but winners. Ireland then played France on Sunday, and dominated to such an extent that, after less than an hour, they could pull halves Conor Murray and Jonathan Sexton, and front-rowers Rory Best, Tadhg Furlong, and Cian Healy.

Wales is fielding an unchanged side. Only fullback Liam Williams was a doubt, after a right shoulder stinger, and he passed full-contact tests. It meant Leigh Halfpenny will miss a chance at a second Grand Slam.

Ireland, meanwhile, recalled Halfpenny’s fellow British and Irish Lions, Sean O’Brien and Rob Kearney, and is giving a championship debut to lock Tadhg Beirne. Some believe it’s overdue, even though Beirne has just recovered from a knee injury in January. He’s also well known to the Welsh; he played for Scarlets for two years until last year, and helped them win the Pro12.

To Wales’ advantage is maturity. They have grown up in the winning streak. They don’t panic and they don’t fear. They have belief that they will prevail. Alun Wyn Jones has been inspirational as captain and is lining up to be the player of the championship if he can win his third Grand Slam.

George North, Jonathan Davies, and Ken Owens could win their second. Their other 19 teammates are aiming for their first Grand Slam, and Gatland says, “I haven’t seen a group of players this motivated, this excited about playing in a Grand Slam game.”

Gatland could make personal history, too, by becoming the first coach to win three Grand Slams. That would separate him from Wales’ John Dawes, England’s Geoff Cooke, and the French trio of Jacques Fouroux, Jean-Claude Skrela, and Bernard Laporte. “I have had 10 Six Nations, and I am proud of what we have achieved,” he says. “We want to finish it off.”

Of course, these Irish know exactly what the Welsh are going through. They pulled off the Grand Slam last year at Twickenham on St. Patrick’s Day.

It’s St. Patrick’s weekend again, and Ireland is in hostile territory again with a chance to win the championship. That’s credit to Schmidt and the players, and England’s loss to Wales, after England crushed them in the opening round.

It took until last weekend against France for Ireland to finally give a performance that was near their 2018 best. Their key partnership of Murray and Sexton rode on the shoulders of their domineering forwards’ and dictated the game like their old selves. That prompted England coach Eddie Jones to lean toward Ireland this weekend, after saying key players appeared to be peaking, while Wales was starting to tire.

That leads to Wales having home advantage, worth a five-point start. It wouldn’t matter whether the roof is open or closed, the atmosphere will be full-blooded. England No. 8 Billy Vunipola said they struggled with it as Wales was carried home by its fans. Gatland said the atmosphere that day was “up there.” He adds, “Some teams can handle that and some teams can’t.”

Cardiff is the only Six Nations stop Ireland has not won at on Schmidt’s watch. They lost their visits in 2015 and 2017.

This is also Schmidt’s last Six Nations match with Ireland, and captain Best’s. Schmidt has upheld his ability to conjure tries from thin air, with Ireland scoring eight of their 13 tries from lineouts.

Wales has showed more of an ability to stay composed, to adapt, and take chances when they come. Their defense, as always, has been immense.

They have also had no distractions this week. After the squabbling over revamping their regional teams put off Wales before the Scotland game, the regions have been noticeably silent this week. A 12th Grand Slam in Welsh history is to be had.

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Lineups:

Wales: Liam Williams, George North, Jonathan Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams, Gareth Anscombe, Gareth Davies; Ross Moriarty, Justin Tipuric, Josh Navidi, Alun Wyn Jones (captain), Adam Beard, Tomas Francis, Ken Owens, Rob Evans. Reserves: Elliot Dee, Nicky Smith, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Aaron Wainwright, Aled Davies, Dan Biggar, Owen Watkin.

Ireland: Rob Kearney, Keith Earls, Garry Ringrose, Bundee Aki, Jacob Stockdale, Jonathan Sexton, Conor Murray; CJ Stander, Sean O’Brien, Peter O’Mahony, James Ryan, Tadhg Beirne, Tadhg Furlong, Rory Best (captain), Cian Healy. Reserves: Niall Scannell, Dave Kilcoyne, Andrew Porter, Quinn Roux, Jack Conan, Kieran Marmion, Jack Carty, Jordan Larmour.

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