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GRAND SLAM excitement hits fever pitch in Wales tomorrow as the second best side in the world takes on the third ranked team in the last Saturday of the Six Nations.
Ireland will be looking to spoil the Welsh party and with St Patrick’s Day looming, will hope tomorrow that the saint’s day omen is good for victory.
This is the final Six Nations game for both Warren Gatland and Ireland’s Joe Schmidt, who step down after the World Cup in Japan.
The battle of the two Kiwi coaches is another mini battle tomorrow as both have been tipped as the next All Blacks boss.
Gatland’s coaching pedigree is first class and he took Wales to Grand Slam glory in his first season in charge in 2008.
The ebullient Kiwi also predicted that if Wales beat France in Paris on the opening day of this year’s tournament they would win the Grand Slam.
Victory tomorrow will make Gatland the first coach to win three Five or Six Nations Grand Slams, but it will be his first Six Nations title since 2013.
Gatland has also taken Wales to World Cup semi and quarter-finals.
Coupled with his two Lions’ stints as coach with victory in Australia and a drawn series in New Zealand, Gatland is possibly the pre-eminent northern hemisphere coach of all time.
With a 13-run series of victories Wales will be slight favourites tomorrow and home advantage typically equates to a 10-point advantage.
But their last defeat was inflicted by Ireland in February 2018.
Schmidt’s Ireland took the Grand Slam last year and beat the All Blacks in the autumn internationals.
But defeat to England last month in Dublin, and unconvincing displays since then, have led many to wonder if Ireland peaked too early in the World Cup cycle and are now a declining force.
Ireland’s canny coach may well be building his side to peak in Japan in the autumn, but victory tomorrow will also regain winning momentum going into a tournament Ireland have underperformed in.
Losing to Wales will also mean Ireland have lost twice and will strip them of the air of invincibility they enjoyed last year.
World class full-back Liam Williams returns to Welsh colours tomorrow, while Ireland have Iain Henderson ruled out.
Tadhg Beirne makes his Six Nations debut and partners James Ryan in Ireland’s fifth different starting second-row combination of the tournament.
Sean O’Brien is recalled while Rob Kearney returns at full-back.
Wales lead the championship by a point from England, with Ireland another point adrift in third.
If Wales stumble and England beat Scotland in tomorrow’s final game then Eddie Jones’s men will take the title for the third time in four years.
This year’s tournament has been extremely close and difficult to predict who the eventual champions will be.
The score-lines and matches between the home nations have been tight and reflect the improvements all four sides have made since the 2015 World Cup.
What is reassuring in World Cup year is that the three sides heading the Six Nations table are also in the top four sides in world Rugby Union rankings.
Revenge is in the air at Twickenham as Jones has commented several times on the Scottish celebrations following his side’s loss in Edinburgh last year.
The bad blood was evident in the tunnel clashes between the players before they took the pitch in that match.
After being awarded man-of-the-match against Italy giant winger Joe Cokanasiga has been left out of the squad for tomorrow’s clash with Scotland with fit-again Jack Rowell returning to the right wing.
The canny Jones has said he is protecting the 21-year-old from the media hype surrounding him, but the Scots will be relieved not to be facing Big Joe for the Calcutta Cup showdown.
Scotland will be missing Stuart Hogg, Blair Kinghorn, Huw Jones and Tommy Seymour, but do have Finn Russell back.
The Scots have been decimated by injuries and have struggled with just a single victory over Italy to their credit in the championship.
Not only are Gregor Townsend’s men struggling with injuries they also face the mental block of not beating England at Twickenham for 36 years.
While England are missing Maro Itoje, Courtney Lawes and Mako Vunipola their strength in depth is such that they have Joe Launchberry and George Kruis as replacements.
Against Italy, Jones singled out Kruis as his man-of-the-match on work-rate and his two charge-downs which brought tries for himself and Brad Shields.
The Scots still have good attacking options but their chances of pulling off an upset are remote with the power England have demonstrated in defence and attack.
Italy host France in Rome and will be hopeful that they can gain at least one victory from the tournament in what could be captain Sergio Parisse’s swan song in the Six Nations.
Whether coach Conor O’Shea’s men can take the victory it will not lessen the calls for promotion and relegation that accompany Italy’s dismal Six Nations record.
France simply has to win to gain a modicum of momentum before Japan in the autumn after another shambolic campaign.
Whatever happens tomorrow this has been a Six Nations to savour and whets our appetite for the World Cup rapidly coming into view.
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