Wales vs Ireland: Six Nations talking points ahead of Saturday's Test
By Sky Sports Rugby Union
Last Updated: 16/03/19 11:20am
Wales entertain Ireland at the Principality Stadium on Saturday (kick-off 2.45pm) in the final round of fixtures in the Six Nations.
Ireland's victory over France kept alive their faint hopes of retaining the crown as they get ready to face Grand Slam-chasing Wales in Cardiff.
Joe Schmidt's side need to win and hope England fail to beat Scotland if they are to keep hold of their title.
Scotland tested Welsh nerves as they fell to an 18-11 defeat at Murrayfield, and with Schmidt and Gatland both set for their final Six Nations game in charge, we take a look at five talking points...
World Cup dress rehearsal?
A first Grand Slam title since 2012 would mark a romantic end to Gatland's love affair with the Six Nations, in what would be a fourth championship title since his appointment in November 2007.
The New Zealander would love to cap a hugely-rewarding reign with more success in Japan this autumn, but the whole of Wales knows that in facing Ireland, a clean sweep is far from a foregone conclusion.
It has not been a vintage Six Nations, encapsulated by Wales' 100 per cent record having yet to hit the heights they are capable of reaching, but Ireland have steadily improved since their opening home defeat to England.
With their own Grand Slam hopes ended so soon, Ireland effectively began their World Cup preparations in week two - and while the pressure will be on Wales, Joe Schmidt's men can treat the occasion as the perfect knockout scenario.
Fourteen in a row for Wales?
Wales are just one match from a Six Nations Grand Slam - but it has not stopped Gatland from admitting to envious glances towards Saturday's opponents.
Provincial side Leinster won the PRO14 and European double last campaign while the All Blacks were beaten in Dublin last November. Such success eclipses anything achieved in recent times by their Welsh counterparts.
"They are number two in the world, and their provinces have had a lot of success in the PRO14 and in Europe," said Gatland. "Sometimes it can breed jealousy."
How much credence should be given to this Welsh side? Should they defeat the defending Six Nations champions, those lingering doubts over their pedigree among the World Cup favourites will surely dissipate.
For the outgoing Wales head coach, a record-setting 14-match winning sequence would go a long way to settling the score.
Have Ireland got their rhythm back?
Ireland's 2019 was kick-started in the first half of their 26-14 win over France last Sunday, and Schmidt will see their performance against Wales as a step towards rebuilding a fear factor ahead of the World Cup.
With another bonus-point victory secured, Johnny Sexton was far happier to see his number come up with just 57 minutes played at the Aviva, eyes already fixed on Cardiff.
Sexton was not alone in having belatedly come to the party in this year's competition. Conor Murray, James Ryan and Rory Best - in his final competitive game at home - were just three of the names who clicked into gear.
It was just shy of an hour of ruthless rugby, a gulf in quality between the two sides. Wales represent a rise in class, and having allowed Yoann Huget and Camille Chat to cross for consolation scores late on, no such complacency can be afforded in the Principality.
Schmidt has called it a "different equation" facing Gatland's side - but a repeat of the cohesion and fluidity seen in rehearsed set plays (Ireland won 18 of their 19 lineouts) will cause Wales problems.
Will Wales' miserly defence be breached?
With less possession and territory, Welsh resilience was on full show in the second half against Scotland, and having produced a defensive masterclass in Murrayfield a fortnight after adapting their tactics to beat England, Wales have shown the multiple facets to their game.
Consistency wins championships, and it has been in short supply among Wales' contenders - and having not been touted as Grand Slamers, it has worked in Gatland's favour as witnessed by the unity on display in Alun Wyn Jones' huddle at the end of their most recent triumph.
The domestic game faces an uncertain future, but the national team is thriving under the added pressure to lift the gloom. It is Wales' defence that has them as favourites - just six tries conceded all tournament compared to the nine tries scored (equal with Italy).
Ireland will surely test Jonathan Davies and co further in Cardiff, and while this represents Gatland's swansong, Ireland also arrive with momentum, desperate to give Best and Schmidt the same perfect ending.
With the forecast of heavy rain set to washout the Welsh capital, the Met Office may force the roof to be closed - but not even a deluge could douse the flames of the Principality's red-hot atmosphere come 2:45pm.
Has Gatland got under Schmidt's skin?
Former Irish international Luke Fitzgerald claimed in the build-up to this Test that Schmidt craves victory over Wales more than against any other side.
Speaking on the Left Wing podcast, he said: "Warren is a deep thinker and I know for a fact he's the only coach that gets under Joe Schmidt's skin.
"There's no way he hasn't recognised that. Wales is the one game Joe wants to win every year."
Schmidt has never beaten Wales in a Six Nations match in Cardiff, but he has always won his final fixture in each of his five previous Six Nations.
There is already plenty on the line when second meets third in the world rankings, but Schmidt's battle with Gatland provides an interesting subplot, with each having won three and drawn the other in their previous seven encounters.
Wales: 15 Liam Williams, 14 George North, 13 Jonathan Davies, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Gareth Anscombe, 9 Gareth Davies; 1 Rob Evans, 2 Ken Owens, 3 Tomas Francis, 4 Adam Beard, 5 Alun Wyn Jones (captain), 6 Josh Navidi, 7 Justin Tipuric, 8 Ross Moriarty
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 Johnny Sexton, 9 Conor Murray; 1 Cian Healy, 2 Rory Best (c), 3 Tadhg Furlong, 4 Tadhg Beirne, 5 James Ryan, 6 Peter O'Mahony, 7 Sean O'Brien, 8 CJ Stander.
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.