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Analysis: Wales on verge of glory but familiar foe stands in their way

Analysis: Wales on verge of glory but familiar foe stands in their way

When Wales walked off the Dublin pitch last February, they did so beaten and frustrated.

Five tries shipped, 37 points conceded and a Championship dream that lay in tatters made it a painful journey home, while Ireland celebrated a crucial win en route to the 2018 Grand Slam.

How times have changed.

On Saturday, it will be Warren Gatland and his men dreaming of confetti, celebrations and rugby immortality as they chase a first title in six years and a first Grand Slam in seven when the sides meet – albeit this time in Cardiff rather than at the Aviva Stadium.

Although hardly in a difficult place 12 months ago – they went on to finish second in the Championship after all – Wales’ emergence as a hard-nosed winning machine has been the story of this Guinness Six Nations. Now, there is just one more hill to climb.

For Gatland, this match will be particularly meaningful. Like his opposite number on Saturday, Joe Schmidt, the New Zealander is set to preside over his last Guinness Six Nations match as head coach.

With two Grand Slams to his name, he has long since guaranteed his place among the Championship greats but it appears he might just have saved his best for last with Wales now on a national record-breaking 13-game winning run.

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When Ireland travel to Cardiff, they’ll find a team that has forgotten how to lose in the last 12 months. So how have they got there?

STAGE ONE – RECOVERY

The beginning of Wales’ journey was uncomfortable. A lack of discipline contributed to a high penalty count against Ireland in 2018 and they were punished by a team that were experts in exploitation.

That left them with just one win from three Championship matches but they resolved to finish strongly with two matches at home.

They saw off Italy 38-14, with George North bagging a pair of tries, but victory against France was perhaps more telling.

In a low-scoring game, Wales spent much of the second half defending their own line. Dan Biggar heroically denied a charging Mathieu Bastareaud and Leigh Halfpenny somehow stopped Remy Grosso in the corner as Wales managed to score zero points after the break and still win 14-13.

With back-to-back losses to first England and then Ireland, it was an encouraging finish for Wales and that victory ensured they finished second in the Championship table.

“Sometimes you will take an ugly victory over the performance,” Gatland said afterwards.

“We turned up today and it was all about winning. The performance was not the most important thing. That is not a bad French team and they are going to get better. It is a tough competition to win or finish second and we are pleased with where we are at the moment.

“We have got something to build on.”

STAGE TWO – NEW IDEAS

Much has been made about Wales’ new-found strength in depth and Gatland deserves great credit for expanding the number of weapons at his disposal.

Blooding new players at just the right time is not the easiest thing to do in Test match rugby but in the 2018 Championship Wales used more than 30 players.

Fast-forward to the summer and Gatland again quickly discovered who he was able to count on when the going got tough against both South Africa and Argentina.

The Springboks, also fielding an inexperienced side, were toppled 22-20 courtesy of a late Ryan Elias try in Washington, before Argentina were twice dismissed comfortably in their own back yard.

Gatland was perceived to be taking a risk but the likes of Josh Adams, Adam Beard and Aaron Wainwright all emerged on that tour ahead of more seasoned players, while Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell continued to stake a claim for the No.10 jersey – offering different virtues to incumbent Biggar, with both embodying the shift in style Gatland has overseen.

It’s safe to say it has paid dividends.

“A clean sweep is not the most important thing,” Gatland said on the eve of the final Test against Argentina.

“We’ve stuck firm on what the objective of this tour is.

“Yes, we want to win games and it’s important that we perform well but if we were desperate and it was all about winning, then the team would probably look a little bit different.

“We discussed that as coaches when we were picking the team, saying that we have to be true to ourselves and what we wanted to achieve.”

Nine months out and it was clear even then that there was a bigger goal in mind.

STAGE THREE – OLD DEMONS PUT TO BED

With confidence restored and a deeper pool of proven players to pick from, Wales returned home for the autumn with a spring in their step and some battles to be won.

Scotland’s visit for the inaugural Doddie Weir Cup was a rare twist in a month where southern hemisphere giants traditionally dominate away dressing rooms and Wales won 21-10 against a side that had not bested them in Cardiff since 2002.

But the key win of the autumn and, perhaps the catalyst for their Championship charge, came a week later against Australia.

The Wallabies’ record at Principality Stadium could not have been stronger, with eight consecutive wins going back to 2009. But Wales, like they would go on to do against England three months later, refused to lose.

Australia shaded both possession and territory, made more offloads, won more turnovers and enjoyed better success at the scrum.

But Wales, sailing on a sea of emotion, won 9-6 with second-half replacement Biggar kicking the winning points to prove his one-two punch with Anscombe could bring success in the biggest games.

“It is nice to finally get a win over Australia, that’s seven wins in a row so it’s nice to build momentum,” said Wales flanker Justin Tipuric.

“Two great defences out there, we pride ourselves on our defence and that is what won us that today.”

Tonga hardly stood a chance a week later and were duly dispatched 74-24, while South Africa were outmuscled in the final week of the autumn to set Wales up perfectly for the Guinness Six Nations.

STAGE FOUR – MOMEMTUM

Gatland’s final Championship in charge could hardly have got off to a rougher start, with France 16-0 up at half-time on opening night.

But the second 40 minutes at the Stade de France has shaped this Championship since. Few believed Wales could come back from such a deficit away from home but, as Gatland later pointed out, his side are used to winning.

George North, his predatory instincts tingling all night, twice benefited from France errors to score a pair while once more Biggar arrived off the bench to see them home.

“To win this Championship – and everyone who’s won it in the last ten years – there’s games you get lucky in,” Gatland said.

“We look back on times when we won the Championship, won the Grand Slam and we’ve had a little bit of luck, bounce of the ball. You need that to win this Championship, because it is tough, but momentum does really help as you go along.”

That momentum has steadily built. Italy were beaten in Rome a week later, meaning Wales made their first home appearance of the Championship against England.

Win and they would equal their national record of 12 straight Test wins but England arrived as the favourites after beating Ireland and France convincingly.

But, as already proven, this Wales side enjoys causing a surprise.

England were outfought and out-thought in the second half, with Principality Stadium a cauldron of noise in the background of a Wales onslaught.

In the end it was Biggar and Adams, old and new, combining for the decisive score with a cross-field kick from the fly-half that the wing wrestled for in the air and planted down: blood and thunder mixed with skill and finesse. It was further evidence of Gatland’s plan coming together.

Another defensive never-say-die win against Scotland soon followed and then now there is just one more step to go, back to where it all began.

Win on Saturday and Gatland’s mission will be accomplished.