Six Nations preview: Warren Gatland’s return to take Wales to a third-place finish
Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s fifth place finishers, Warren Gatland’s Wales.
This year’s edition of rugby’s greatest championship comes with the added weight of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France looming in the minds of players and coaches alike.
Wales come into 2023 a completely different prospect after the dismissal of Wayne Pivac as head coach at the end of last year, with the return of veteran coach Warren Gatland to the hot-seat.
Wales had a tricky year in 2022 as their Six Nations started with an away game against an impressive Ireland side who claimed a comfortable 29-7 victory.
The Welsh responded fairly well with a 20-17 win over Scotland in Cardiff thanks to a 70th-minute drop goal from then-skipper Dan Biggar sealing the game, only to lose to England (23-19) a week later at Twickenham.
Wales managed a solid performance against eventual Grand Slam winners France, competing excellently against Fabien Galthie’s side but still losing 13-9 on the day.
The wheels would then start to fall off in Pivac’s tenure as Wales suffered their first ever defeat to Italy as World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year Ange Capuozzo orchestrated an outstanding try in the final moments to win 22-21.
After a decent outing against South Africa in the mid-year series, where they lost the series 2-1 and claimed their first win in the country, it all went pear-shaped in the Autumn Nations Series as Wales lost for the first time against Georgia – effectively sealing Pivac’s fate.
The Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) turned back to Gatland, who coached the side from 2007 to 2019 and won three Grand Slams and four Six Nations during his tenure. The New Zealander’s deal runs until this year’s World Cup with an option to extend to the 2027 showpiece.
Gatland has a lot of work to do but knows the modern Welsh rugby landscape better than most. There is a great deal of external noise he will have to navigate, with the WRU under pressure from almost all angles.
Nevertheless, if anyone can steady the ship, it will be Gatland who will likely take it a step further and get Wales attacking with menace again.
Looking at the squad, there is some serious talent in the back-row and in the backline. The tools are there. Gatland just needs to pick up the jigsaw puzzle and fit the right pieces as quickly as possible.
Wales start their campaign with a visit from the world’s top-ranked side, Ireland, on February 4 before a trip to Scotland in Round Two. After that, England head to Cardiff in Round Three before Wales visit Italy and France for the final two rounds.
Number eight Taulupe Faletau was one of the shining lights for Wales in an indifferent 2022 and boasts immense quality on both sides of the ball. The Cardiff man carried tremendously well throughout and made an impressive number in each game he was part of. One would expect Faletau to be a dead-on starter as Gatland will look to find balance around the star with the plethora of options available at flank.
🏴🦁 A great moment for Taulupe Faletau on his 100th Test. #WALvAUSpic.twitter.com/f2CecgrI0g
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) November 26, 2022
Ken Owens has been handed the captain’s armband by Gatland, taking over from Biggar, who skippered the side last season, and will have the massive task of setting the tone. The hooker is vastly experienced with 86 Test caps for Wales and will be looking to build on his impressive form in the Autumn Nations Series.
Captaincy or not, Dan Biggar remains a key player for Gatland as the obvious first-choice fly-half. The Welshman kicks well out of hand and at goal, is handy on attack and is a decent defender. Wales claim to be looking to elevate their attack this year, and the Toulon man will be key. If Biggar plays well, Wales will always have a better chance in the Six Nations.
Players to watch
Christ Tshiunza is one of the hottest prospects globally after regularly putting in solid performances with Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership and Champions Cup. The behemoth stands at 1.98 metres tall and 112 kilograms, adding some much-needed physicality to the Welsh pack. Gatland has plentiful options at flank, so it remains to be seen where and how he will use Tshiunza. There is always the possibility of shifting him to the second-row to add further power to the tight five. Nevertheless, the starlet is ready to have an extended run at Test level regardless of position and could become a powerhouse for Wales.
OH MY WORD! 😱😱😱
20-year-old Christ Tshiunza has won the game for @ExeterChiefs at Sandy Park.#GallagherPrem pic.twitter.com/pgl4nOu2WU
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) September 25, 2022
Dragons winger Rio Dyer burst onto the Test scene with a fantastic try against the All Blacks on his debut in Cardiff. He has continued to show good form for his club side with his electric pace and sound ball skills. With Louis Rees-Zammit expected to be out for the opening two rounds, Gatland may rely on Dyer for out-and-out pace in his backline. The coach has options at wing with both Josh Adams and Alex Cuthbert lurking, but the Dragon is a more like-for-like replacement for Rees-Zammit.
Wales will inevitably get better under Gatland as he uses his vast knowledge of rugby in the country to steady the ship and make a charge up the table. The squad looks good, and there is a host of talent in most positions, with flank being the strongest by a long way. Their tight five is probably the most under pressure area of the team, and if Gatland can get that area firing, all the other components will benefit greatly.
Wales have brilliant half-backs and some truly fantastic runners outside of them, so it will be fascinating to see how Gatland chooses to elevate his attack. They have three away games out of the five, which is not ideal, and Italy could prove a menacing prospect as Kieran Crowley’s outfit packs a different kind of punch at the moment. However, Gatland will relish playing in France ahead of the World Cup later this year.
Several players were part of Gatland’s 2019 World Cup team and will be accustomed to how he operates. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad will be lifted by the arrival of a new coach, as it often is in sport. Ultimately, there is the unknown of how quickly the head coach can line the stars for Wales. With Ireland and France streets ahead of anyone else in the competition, the third spot is really a battle between England and Wales, both of whom have new coaches. We predict Gatland’s experience to trump the start of the Steve Borthwick era. Third place.
Saturday, February 4 v Ireland (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 11 v Scotland (Murrayfield Stadium)
Saturday, February 25 v England (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 11 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 18 v France (Stade de France)
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