CARDIFF, Wales — On Friday afternoon, St Mary Street in Cardiff had a slightly nervous aura of expectation hanging above it. It was eerily quiet. The bars had already block-ordered and stored away excessive quantities of beer, the Welsh flags were just appearing on buildings, while the ticket touts — complete with strained vocal chords — were yet to arrive, and the folks selling the half-and-half scarves near the train station had not yet set up.
All the while, the rain fell and the wind swirled but still, there was a collective awareness of the match lying in wait on Saturday.
Fast-forward 24 hours, and those same pavements will resemble a cross between a music festival, the apocalypse and auditions for Love Island as the rugby world descends on Cardiff for Wales against Ireland. And above all the wonderful madness, if Warren Gatland’s Wales have their way, then there will be 275,000 odd face-painted folk dancing, toasting and cheering to the beat of their third Six Nations Grand Slam in 11 years. The storm raging through that part of the U.K will not dampen celebrations, nor will the rain detract involuntary explosions of joy as strangers hug strangers and memories dissolve into plastic pint glasses.
Cardiff on match-day is the most intoxicating, suffocating, brilliant, claustrophobic of rugby atmospheres. It is like nothing else as the bars are rammed six hours before kick-off and tickets are being sold for multiple times their face value while housed within the midst of the madness is the small patch of grass enclosed within one of the world’s greatest stadia where you can’t help but smile and feel your heart quicken as the pre-match songs reverberate through your chest.
“Cardiff on matchday — the most intoxicating, suffocating, brilliant, claustrophobic of rugby atmospheres.”
But when Wales and Ireland take to the field on Saturday afternoon, they will be blocking out the outside noise, they will be doing their utmost to ignore the potential accolades waiting for them and they will be remembering their coaches’ messages. As Gatland and Joe Schmidt prepare for their final Six Nations match — with Wales and Ireland, respectively — the two born winners will be ensuring their sides personify a victory-or-bust mentality. Though their own personal pride and desire to win will be harnessed as added fuel for their teams, this match does mean so much to both Gatland and Schmidt. They will have their plans for the predicted awful conditions — Ireland demanded the roof to be open on Saturday — and will have tweaked gameplans accordingly but this marks the end of their Six Nations chapter.
Rugby rarely plays to the perfect, ideal script. And 140 miles away at Twickenham, Eddie Jones’ England will be poised like a viper as they face bruised Scotland, waiting for any Welsh stumble to gate-crash the party. Therein lies the beauty and brutality of Super Saturday in the Six Nations where best laid plans rarely materialise.
There are a number of ramifications for the final weekend of the Six Nations, but boiled down, it looks a bit like this:
If Wales win, they secure the Grand Slam and pint after pint will be thrown into the Cardiff air.
If Wales lose, and England beat Scotland, then Jones’ team will have their third Six Nations title in four years. Ireland and England could finish level on points if Schmidt’s side get a try bonus point and England fail to, but then it goes to points difference and England’s is +64 to the good.
If Wales fall and Scotland somehow topple England, then the championship heads to Ireland. A draw for Wales and Ireland means if England win, they take the title.
If England lose against Scotland, following a draw in Cardiff, then Gatland’s side win the title.
But park all that and focus on the games themselves.
Wales head into the weekend as favourites to win the Six Nations and Grand Slam. Gatland has been telling the watching rugby world that his team have forgotten how to lose, as they look to add another victory to their already record-breaking tally of 14 on the bounce. And added to the chips stacked in their favour is Gatland’s record in big games; more often than not, his teams deliver. His club sides Waikato and Wasps won six cup finals from six under his stewardship while for big-game victories, look to Wales’ 2015 World Cup pool stage win over England and the two British & Irish Lions victories in Sydney in 2013 and then Wellington four years on. Gatland knows how to win.
You sense with Wales they are yet to hit top gear in an attacking sense but they have been brilliantly efficient in this Six Nations, harnessing a game plan built on attrition and intelligence, married with counter-attacking rugby thanks to their lightning back three. They are brutal when they need to be at the breakdown, but equally patient without the ball. Teams find them hard to break down — just ask England — while if you give them a chance, more often than not they’ll convert it.
The same goes for Ireland. Schmidt and Gatland both know that you don’t win World Cups by playing wonderfully attractive, expansive, offload-excessive rugby. No, you play intelligent rugby, waiting for opportunities and then pouncing while maintaining a strong set piece and self-discipline. This is the battle that will play out at Cardiff on Saturday. Gatland will be searching for his third clean sweep and fourth Six Nations title with Wales, while Schmidt will firstly want his first victory on Welsh soil and then his fourth title in six years.
But do not for one minute forget Twickenham and England as, inevitably, Jones will have a role to play. An Irish victory — by no means out of the question from the number two side in the world — and suddenly, Jones’ side are in the box seat for the title, facing a Scottish team who have endured a miserable campaign. Added to that is Scotland’s awful recent record at Twickenham, having not won there since 1983.
Jones has already had his say on the Wales-Ireland match, talking up Ireland’s team and questioning Wales’ fitness. Gatland gave the latter perception short-shrift on Thursday and Alun Wyn Jones responded with equally muted recognition. “I did not know he was Irish but it was good of him, I feel fine,” the towering lock said.
“Gatland will go down as one of the great Wales coaches, if not rugby coaches, of the professional era.”
England should beat Scotland, and handsomely because when Jones is bullish — as he has been this week — his side normally play in his image. Though he has played down the significance of winning the title, oh how he’d like to do it against Scotland after last year’s dismal campaign and treatment he was subject to at Murrayfield. He hasn’t forgotten that and neither has Gatland parked the doubter’s feedback over the quality of his coaching during his Wales tenure.
Win or lose on Saturday, Gatland will still go down as one of the great Wales coaches, if not rugby coaches, of the professional era. The same goes for his opposite number Schmidt and Jones at England. All three are obsessed with victory but the trio know that if their team falls short, then in a World Cup year there are bigger prizes on the horizon.
But for 80 minutes in Cardiff and, depending on the result, 80 minutes in Twickenham, there will be no thoughts of the future; it’ll be passion anchored on the present. And as people weigh up the records on the line — the great Alun Wyn Jones equaling Gethin Jenkins’ tally of 134 caps Saturday — there will be added significance for each individual playing in the matches.
But don’t expect anyone to be drawn into star-gazing. “There is a big 80 minutes before we can look at the romantic and sentiment side of it,” Alun Wyn Jones said Friday in his own, unique, understated way.
Just like the atmosphere outside the Principality Stadium, for 80 minutes enjoy northern hemisphere rugby at its age-old, timeless best. It’s going to be intense, gruelling, exhilarating, fuelled and at times, intoxicating. Enjoy the quiet because come Saturday afternoon, it’s going to be inescapably nerve-wracking.