It’s red v green, Wales v Ireland and Gatland v Schmidt on Saturday and the outcome between two well-matched teams seems difficult to predict. For Robin Davey, though, Gatland’s ability to change and adapt put him a notch above his rival. Allied to a knack for creating the right emotional pitch, it could all point to another day of Grand Slam glory.
Wales are preparing for their day of destiny at the Principality Stadium on Saturday and are hell bent on marking Warren Gatland’s last Six Nations game in charge with a glorious Grand Slam triumph.
Not for the first time Ireland stand between them and the ultimate Six Nations achievement and it isn’t lost on anyone that if Wales succeed it will be a record third Grand Slam for Gatland.
The coach has skilfully masterminded Wales’ march so far – coming back from a 16-0 half-time deficit in France in the very first game to a point where they stand on the brink of their 12th Grand Slam and a remarkable 14th successive win for this team.
Gatland’s astute use of replacements, allied to Shaun Edwards’ magnificent defensive guidance – so evident in the second half at Murrayfield last Saturday – has played a major role in Wales’ 100% success so far.
Saturday brings Gatland up against his old adversary, fellow New Zealander Joe Schmidt, who himself has overseen a glorious Ireland revival to a point where they actually beat the mighty All Blacks twice in a row.
Somewhat surprisingly, though, the Irish were overwhelmed by England in their Six Nations opener in Dublin where their halo slipped in a big set-back for Schmidt, too.
Both Gatland and Schmidt are bidding farewell with their last Six Nations matches. The pair will take their adopted countries to the World Cup later in the year and then stand down.
This time last year, there was talk that Schmidt might succeed Gatland as Lions coach in 2021. It seemed plausible then, but 12 months on anyone other than Gatland for that role would feel second best, regardless of Schmidt’s subsequent decision to take a break from coaching for family reasons.
Schmidt is an excellent coach, who specialises in attention to detail, but Gatland again appears to be at the very peak of his powers.
He has sustained his influence over a longer period than Schmidt – 11 years at international level, compared to Schmidt’s six. There appears to be no drop in his motivation to succeed, and his ability to target a specific point in the future – like a Lions tour – and then shape a team to hit their sweet spot at that moment is unmatched by any rival, Schmidt included.
More than that, Gatland has become more flexible as a coach, rather than less. His teams are now adaptable, whereas some recent Irish performances hint at a team that may already have run out of alternative methods.
Ireland, though, – thanks to Schmidt’s prompting – have certainly got their mojo back from that opening tournament defeat and comfortably beat an admittedly disappointing French team last Saturday.
Their winning bonus point means that Saturday will see a three-way battle for the Six Nations trophy, for Wales, Ireland and England – who close the tournament out when they face Scotland at Twickenham -are all in with a shout.
Memories will inevitably flood back to that classic Grand Slam showdown between Wales and Ireland at the Millennium Stadium in 2005.
An estimated 250,000 people flocked into Cardiff, many heading for the City Hall area where thousands gathered to watch the showdown on big screens, some hanging out of trees to get a better view. The scenes were truly amazing.
Max Boyce, Katherine Jenkins and Charlotte Church all sang in the stadium and when Wales won the match 32-20 to clinch the crown the place went berserk.
There’s a huge clamour for tickets this time with the cheapest seats selling for £265 and a pair going for £672.
It promises to be a monumental battle once again with Wales focussed on giving Gatland that memorable send-off, but Ireland equally determined to translate their Indian sign over Welsh regions in the Pro 14 competition to glory on the international front.
It’s essential that the Welsh back row turn up once again and target Irish lynchpin Johnny Sexton. He’s their key man and Wales have got to put him off his game.
He is probably the best kicker around and he will test the Welsh back three all afternoon if he is given the chance. So Justin Tipuric, Ross Moriarty and Josh Navidi, who have been outstanding all tournament, will be men on a mission.
This time it really has to be an 80-minute performance. So far, Wales have played in fits and starts despite winning all four matches.
The France opener was a typical example when they were awful in the first half yet rallied in the second period to come away with the spoils.
England was something similar when they were outplayed in the opening half only to hit back heavily after the interval to gain a terrific victory.
And yet again at Murrayfield when Wales scorched away in the opening half only for Scotland to peg them back in the second half, leaving Wales hanging on and grateful to get the win.
Ireland are unlikely to let them off the hook so Wales have got to grab the game by the scruff of the neck, start well and keep going for the full 80.
They will undoubtedly be lifted by another fanatical reception from the fans in the iconic stadium, worth a few points in itself.
The way Wales attacked in the opening half at Murrayfield then defended as if their lives depended on it augurs well. The likes of Hadleigh Parkes and Josh Adams bore the scars of battle with cuts and bruises.
All of that and more will be required on Saturday as Ireland arrive determined to spoil the party. It’s going to be close but Wales ought to edge it.
Cue wild celebrations and a recognition of Gatland’s record-breaking achievement and astonishing long-standing influence.