Six Nations Preview: Wales

Date published: February 3 2016

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Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2016 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Warren Gatland's Wales.

There will be plenty of optimism in Wales' camp as they look to recapture the form which secured them the Six Nations crown in 2013 and 2012. 

Since then, Ireland have ruled the roost in the Northern Hemisphere's premiere international competition. The men from the Emerald Isle won both the 2014 and 2015 tournaments with Wales having to settle for third place in both those years.

Wales showed at the Rugby World Cup that they can mix it with the game's powerhouses and impressed in the tournament's 'Group of Death' before finishing second to the tournament's eventual runners-up, Australia, to qualify for the quarter-finals. 

Only a moment of brilliance by Springbok number eight Duane Vermeulen, who set up a try for his captain, Fourie du Preez, prevented Gatland's charges from reaching their second successive World Cup semi-final.

They will use their performances at the World Cup as a launchpad to regain the Six Nations title and will be boosted by the return from injury of several stalwarts who were crocked during last year's global showpiece in England.

Last year: Just like their World Cup campaign, Wales were competitive throughout the Six Nations but still had to settle for third place behind Ireland and England. 

All three sides suffered just one defeat and finished on the same points in the standings but Ireland were crowned champions by virtue of their superior points difference. 

Wales kicked off their campaign with a 16-21 defeat to England at the Millennium Stadium before bouncing back with a narrow 26-23 away victory against Scotland.

They got better as the tournament progressed and claimed a morale-boosting 20-13 win over France at the Stade de France in Week Three before beating Ireland 23-16 at the Millennium Stadium. 

Wales finished their campaign on a high – thrashing Italy 61-20 at the Stadio Olimpico – but it just wasn't enough to secure them the title.

This year: They will be brimming with confidence after their World Cup exploits in which they fared best of the Northern Hemisphere countries. With several of their injured players fit again, Wales will fancy their chances of going all the way this year. 

Much will depend on their opening fixture, away to Ireland, and a win in Dublin will set them up nicely for the rest of the tournament, although they face a tricky hurdle at Twickenham against an England side of which much is expected under the guidance of their new head coach, Eddie Jones.

Wales' superb defensive record stood them in good stead at the World Cup, and they will look to continue with that form, but if they want to be successful in the Six Nations they must also improve their attacking game, which didn't impress at the global showpiece.

Key players: Wales' captain Sam Warburton and lock Alun Wyn Jones will be expected to lead the charge up front while amongst the backs Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies are expected to resume their exciting midfield combination. 

The twin threat posed at the breakdown by Warburton and Justin Tipuric – when they do play together – should provide headaches to opposing openside flankers while Davies will be raring to go, after missing the World Cup due to a knee injury. 

Leigh Halfpenny is still battling to overcome his knee injury but in Gareth Anscombe Gatland has found a capable replacement. Equally comfortable at full-back and fly-half, Anscombe is one of the few players in the game who comes close to Halfpenny's accuracy when kicking at goal, although the Cardiff Blues stalwart is yet to showcase his goal-kicking prowess at Test level.

Players to watch: Although Warburton, Jones and Roberts showed at the World Cup that they are amongst the best players in the world, in their respective positions, fly-half Dan Biggar came into his own with several outstanding performances. Biggar's accurate goal-kicking is one of his best attributes but he also has the ability to bring out the best in his outside backs with his playmaking abilities. 

Also keep an eye on young prop Rob Evans of whom big things are expected. The Scarlets stalwart made his Test debut last year and is viewed as the long-term replacement for veteran Gethin Jenkins. Evans has proven himself as a solid scrummager for his club and has also impressed with his high work-rate in the loose. He'll get a chance to impress against Ireland.

Prospects: Wales will be one of the favourites to win the tournament especially considering that several of the players who were injured on Rugby World Cup duty are set to return to action and given they're the most settled and experienced side coming into the competition. They will undoubtedly be challenging for honours.

Fixtures: 
Sunday, February 7 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Saturday, February 13 v Scotland (Millennium Stadium)
Friday, February 26 v France (Millennium Stadium)
Saturday, March 12 v England (Twickenham)
Saturday, March 19 v Italy (Millennium Stadium)

by David Skippers

OTHER SIX NATIONS PREVIEWS: FRANCE, SCOTLAND, ITALY

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