Planet Rugby

Six Nations Preview: Wales

28th January 2014 11:22

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Sam Warburton Wales SN 2013

Champions: Wales celebrate

Having defended their title in emphatic style last year, Wales set their sights on a hat-trick of Six Nations Championships.

Last Year: After a wretched November 2012 under stand-in boss Rob Howley, the pressure was on Wales to deliver during the Six Nations. It all looked pretty ominous after forty minutes of Round One; Ireland cruising to a 23-3 lead at the Millenium Stadium. That was to prove comfortably the worst half of Wales' tournament, however, as they fought back after the break; eventually losing 30-22.

Out wide, hulking wingers George North and Alex Cuthbert made impacts in keeping with their respective size and power. Leigh Halfpenny, diminutive by comparison, enjoyed a storming championship at full-back, notching a total of 74 points.

And though wins over France, Italy and Scotland were a touch laborious, the measure of Wales' powers was truly realised in their title-deciding showdown at the Millennium Stadium with England, a scintillating performance and one of the tries of the tournament ensuring a successful defence of their Six Nations crown. It was certainly in stark contrast to the suicidal first forty of the opening fixture.

This Year: Unless you've spent the past few months elsewhere in the solar system, you will be aware of a fairly seismic regions versus union storm brewing off the field in Welsh rugby, which appears no closer to a peaceful resolution. Whether arguments surrounding central contracts, an Anglo-Welsh league, or the threat of legal action will affect the national team is debatable, but it can hardly be considered a positive influence.

On the pitch, Wales are sweating over the fitness of Jonathan Davies, while Sam Warburton and Jamie Roberts have barely returned from spells on the sidelines. The old adage proclaiming "class is permanent" rings true - Wales are a far better side with these players than without them, but match fitness must surely be an issue.

Though they still fall short of the execution and mental fortitude required to topple the Southern Hemisphere's big three - in spite of Wales' hefty contribution to the victorious British and Irish Lions tour - Warren Gatland knows his side have had the beating of their European rivals for the past two years.

Key Players: Wales are not short of talent, and though Roberts, Halfpenny and North grab the headlines, it is the relentless drive of Alun Wyn Jones and Richard Hibbard that provides the go-forward for them to strike. Both have been in titanic form this season, with Hibbard rivalling Bismarck du Plessis as world rugby's most physical hooker. The leadership and unwavering determination of Wyn Jones is arguably more important than his carries or line-out takes; invaluable when the chips are down.

One to Watch: Stalwart of the Welsh pack, and still correctly regarded as one of the game's top tightheads, Adam Jones has not been his destructive self since the IRB's scrum protocols took effect. Scarlets prop Samson Lee is bashing his sizeable fist on Gatland's door, and though inexperienced, deserves game-time at Test level. Tightheads are worth their considerable weight in gold now more than ever, and if he is developed correctly, Wales could have a real asset on their hands in the form of Lee.

Prospects: Wales' tournament will be made or broken by their two away fixtures in Dublin and at Twickenham respectively. They can be confident of beating Italy, France and Scotland on home turf, but if Ireland hit the heights of their near-miss against the All Blacks, that game will provide a very stern test. Similarly, the clash with an England side steadily building under Stuart Lancaster could go either way, with the forward battle that will entail a mouth-watering prospect.

A Grand Slam is within their capabilities, but a second four-win title looks more likely to hand Wales a hat-trick of Six Nations Championships.

Fixtures:

Feb 1st v Italy
Feb 8th v Ireland
21st Feb v France
9th March v England
15th March v Scotland

By Jamie Lyall
@JLyall93

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