Six Nations preview: Wales

Date published: January 30 2015

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We preview each of the team’s prospects ahead of the upcoming Six Nations Championship. Next up, it’s 2013 champions Wales.

Heading into the tournament as third favourites, Wales have arguably the most settled squad in the competition, as well as a favourable schedule. So can Warren Gatland’s men warm up for the World Cup with a third Six Nations title in four years? Will November’s win over South Africa, their first against one of the big three in six years, be the catalyst for them to conquer Europe once more?

Last Year: It was a mixed edition in 2014 for the Welsh, who finished third overall, having won the previous two Championships. After kicking off the tournament with a laboured win over Italy, they were blown away by Ireland in one of the worst performances of the Warren Gatland era, going down 26-3. France were similarly awful in Cardiff a fortnight later when Wales got back to winning ways, 27-6, but it was only Leigh Halfpenny’s boot that kept it respectable at Twickenham as Wales’ title hopes were ended in a 29-18 loss to England. A big 51-3 win over 14-man Scotland in the final game boosted morale but meant little in the context of the tournament.

This year: It all kicks off with a Friday night blockbuster against the English in Cardiff. Having hammered Stuart Lancaster’s side at the Millennium Stadium two years ago, Wales will want more of the same as injuries have decimated the Red Rose. Often a confidence team, a big win could be just what Wales need, and they have every chance of making a strong start with Scotland up the following week. The Welsh regions have disappointed this season, but that’s often been the case in the past, while the civil war that threatened to tear the game in Wales apart seems to have come to a truce of sorts, for now. There are still major issues, with Adam Jones retired, Samson Lee has taken over the mantle as the most important player in the side. And the challenge of juggling the returning internationals from France and England and getting them to gel is getting bigger as more and more players leave the regions. More than anything, Gatland needs to show that he can win tactical battle against the likes of Joe Schmidt and get the best out of his players.

Key Players: As mentioned above, Wales’ challenge will likely succeed or fail based on the fitness of Samson Lee. The Scarlets tighthead has quickly established himself as one of the premier scrummagers in Europe and is really the only top quality operator Wales have in the position. The problem is, he’s been struggling with a nerve problem, and needs to prove his fitness ahead of the opener next Friday. With only Aaron Jarvis, who has struggled in the set-piece for the Ospreys, and Blues back-up Scott Andrews, as alternatives, Gatland will be praying that Lee is ready.

Players to watch: Alun-Wyn Jones has established himself as one of Wales’ all-time greats in the second-row, but alongside him, Jake Ball is a valuable asset in the Welsh pack. An abrasive presence at lock, Ball stepped up well after making his debut in last year’s tournament, before starting against the big three in November. Leigh Halfpenny needs less introduction, and has overcome a slow start in Toulon to find his best form in recent weeks. Still as accurate a goal-kicker as there is in world rugby, he also seems to be enjoying getting involved in open play with the French giants. We’ll have to wait and see whether Gatland invites him to do the same with Wales. Finally Rhys Webb will be closely monitored as he looks to add to the 11 tries he’s scored in all competitions this season. There are few greater sniping threats in the tournament, and his partnership with Ospreys team-mate Dan Biggar will be key to Wales’ chances.

Prospects: While not entirely convincing in November, Wales should have gained a lot of confidence from their win over South Africa in their final game. Couple that with a favourable schedule that sees them welcome both England and Ireland to the Millennium Stadium, and it’s a huge opportunity for Gatland and his team. They may not be the best European team at this year’s World Cup, but if Wales can get off to a winning start next Friday, they might just be able pull off a third title in four years. First.

Fixtures:

Fri, 6 Feb v England (Millennium Stadium)
Sun, 15 Feb v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Sat, 28 Feb v France (Stade de France)
Sat, 14 March v Ireland (Millennium Stadium)
Sat, 21 March v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)

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