Emotions always run high in Cardiff, with the home supporters creating an unbelievable din to provide the best theatre of the Championship, year in, year out. Add in some tough times for the Welsh following two losses, including a home defeat to England, that means they are desperate for a win to preserve their top-eight status in the world rankings ahead of the 2019 World Cup draw and the pressure is being heaped onto Rob Howley’s side to produce a winning show in this penultimate round clash.
With a home team being asked for a reaction following their lacklustre defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield 12 days ago, Schmidt knows tomorrow’s game is more than just an obstacle on the road to a potential title decider with the English in Dublin on March 18.
He brought his players to Cardiff in 2015 at the same juncture and saw a Grand Slam dream die and whatever the state of Welsh play it could easily happen again.
Which is why he has retained the same starting XV which saw off the immensely physical France by 10 points at the Aviva Stadium last time out and has backed them to deliver the same required intensity. Get the pitch wrong and the penalties that inevitably follow will be punished but Schmidt trusts his senior players to set the right tone.
“I have no doubt Wales... will be highly motivated and we have to match that level of motivation,” Schmidt said yesterday. “Emotionally our players will be up as well, they have to be because you can’t miss a beat because the margins are so fine.
“We have already been stung once by going in a little bit undercooked (against Scotland in round one) and not being at the same heightened level our opponents were. So I would hope that we would be as ready as Wales are.”
The job of reaching the right pitch was not his, Schmidt said, but his trusted, on-field lieutenants, led by captain Rory Best and vice-captain Jamie Heaslip, who tomorrow will join his skipper as a Test centurion, factoring in his British & Irish Lions caps in South Africa and Australia.
“I think by the time you get that close to the game Jamie, Bestie, Johnny Sexton, Conor Murray, experienced guys like Rob Kearney at the back, Keith Earls, they have all been here before, they seem to have a pretty good idea of what level they need to get to here and that influences the players around them,” Schmidt said.
“Rory is a really good example. He said he doesn’t sing the anthems because he knows it would, emotionally, heighten his emotions, probably beyond the level he feels is best for him to be in control. He kind of self- regulates and in the end most players self-regulate really well, so you just don’t want to get in their way, they are experienced athletes and they also have a ripple effect on the team so you let them ripple in. They are calm, concentrated, highly-motivated in their demeanour, you hope that the ripples through.”
Ordinarily, Jared Payne might have been amongst them but his comeback from a serious kidney injury suffered in November has been temporarily checked and he missed Tuesday’s training session due to bumps and bruises from his first start for Ulster last weekend. Wales has come too soon and Schmidt said he was happy to stick with the developing partnership of Leinster team-mates Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose.
The only change to the matchday squad follows wing Andrew Trimble being ruled out for the final two games following hand surgery, his place as the outside back’s replacement reverting to Ulster team-mate Tommy Bowe, given a second chance after a disappointing run off the bench in the opening-round loss to Scotland.
Schmidt took issue with his former player turned pundit Shane Horgan who said the inclusion of Bowe, 33, for the Murrayfield game, had been “a nostalgia call”.
The Ireland boss said Bowe had “trained the house down” since his return to Ireland camp from a knee injury suffered at the 2015 World Cup and the Grand Slam-winning wing played “incrementally better” for Ulster in last few games, certainly enough to see off the claims of Craig Gilroy and Munster’s uncapped back Andrew Conway.
Schmidt also pointed to Bowe’s aerial prowess in dealing with Wales’s strength under the high ball and disputed Horgan’s assertion he was selecting on the basis of past achievements.
“I think Shane hasn’t spent any time in our environment, so he’s never seen Tommy train,” Schmidt said. “So I think it’s a typically external opinion purely opinion based. We try to base our decision on how a player is performing, I’ve coached Shane and there’s probably been times when people have questioned my selecting him in the past.
“I’m not sure whether, over the last three and a half, four years, how many nostalgic decisions I’ve made. But I can’t really remember many.”