RUN UP TO THE TOURNAMENT
The other home nations all look to have the wind in their sails this year, while France and Italy continue to plumb the depths. Meanwhile, Wales have largely been bobbing along unhappily since their last title in 2013. The odd moment of magic, epitomised by the miraculous manner of the win against England at the 2015 World Cup, is too easily forgotten amid a sea of both mediocrity and acrimony.
The main source of at least the latter is a coaching set up that many believe, despite being the most successful in the country’s history, has outstayed its welcome. With some already looking forward to welcoming the next management team after the 2019 World Cup, Wales find themselves in a strange and slightly unsettling limbo.
We finally saw some evidence of the long-vaunted new of style play in the autumn, replacing the undoubtedly outdated ‘Warrenball’. But results remained decidedly mixed. Away trips to England and Ireland, two sides at least a couple of years ahead of Wales in developing a game for the modern era, are tough assignments for a group of players low on confidence and feeling the sand shift beneath their feet.
One glimmer of hope for Wales is that when Gatland’s men do occasionally become world-beaters, as they did in 2008 and from 2011-13, it tends to be without warning. In 2008, the historic 2005 Grand Slam had been almost forgotten, replaced with the trauma of the farcical 2007 World Cup. In 2011 Wales had struggled to kick on from 2008 in the way many thought they would, but again came good and bossed Northern Hemisphere rugby for a couple of seasons.
So you can never write Wales off. Gatland will be looking to revive his ailing reputation and finish his tenure with a flourish, as will Rhys Webb, who may never play international rugby again after the tournament. If Wales get a (rare) good start against Scotland and the bounce of the ball at Twickenham, I’d back them for the Grand Slam all day long. However, if the rampaging Scots sack Cardiff, I’d be surprised if they finished above fourth (essentially last in an increasingly two-tier tournament).
As Wales general manager Alan ‘Thumper’ Phillips once said: “With Wales it’s either the wedding game or the funeral game, nothing in between”. Once again, you sense we Welsh fans will be heading the church at the end of this Six Nations, we just don’t know what colour we’ll be wearing yet.
Cardiff Blues three-quarter Owen Lane has impressed since making a Pro 14 man-of-the-match debut against Connacht late last year. While he’s played most of his rugby at centre, injuries saw the 20-year-old start his regional career on the wing – and he hasn’t looked back.
He was on the sevens circuit with Wales last season, so there’s every chance he could join fellow sevens specialist Sam Cross into the squad.
While his regional appearances are only just into double figures, it’s still more than George North had under his belt when he made his Wales 2010 debut against South Africa at just 18-years-old. Will Gatland rediscover the willingness to blood youngsters that defined his early reign, searching for one more shot of glory? Some think he will.
The Worcester winger is currently the top scorer in the Aviva Premiership (at the time of writing), prompting many to call on the WRU to end his English exile. The Swansea-born certainly has the gas, and he’s eligible until he signs his new contract, so there seem to be few reasons not to select him.
You suspect if there is to be one new cap in the back three, it’ll either be Adams of Lane. But with the extensive injury list, it’s perfectly possible we could see both in the initial squad at least.
Adams is just the kind of old-fashioned flyer Wales have been missing in recent years. And the terrible luck with injuries suffered by players previously ahead of him (especially Keelan Giles and the almost forgotten Eli Walker) could see him jump the queue and go straight into the 23 against Scotland. With Steff Evans coming off the back of a 4-week suspension, who’s to say Adams won’t go even further?
Ones to watch (who will have a big tournament)
Well, it’ll certainly be emotional if nothing else. Many in Wales feel Webb is a sacrificial lamb, offered by the WRU to show they were serious about the new selection policy. Barring a dramatic last minute intervention, this will be Webb’s final Six Nations. And Saturday 17 March, playing against France, will almost definitely be the last time he pulls on the red jersey.
It’s a bizarre and frankly very sad situation. You wouldn’t blame Webb for not wanting to turn out at all under the current coaching set-up. But he showed professionalism and no lack of passion in the Autumn Internationals, even shedding a tear when forced off with a head injury against New Zealand.
No one will want to succeed more than Webb and over the years he’s shown himself to be a model professional. I only hope the extreme emotions act as a catalyst and don’t overwhelm him – although no one would think any less if him if they did.
Just as it looked like time was running out for Navidi’s international prospects, a back-row injury crisis, combined with Gatland’s stubborn unwillingness to select either James Davies (a disruptive influence) or Thomas Young (god knows), Navidi was finally handed his first Cardiff start in the Autumn Internationals.
While at the time many doubted the versatile back-row forward’s ability to fill the enormous jersey of Sam Warburton, he ended up as one of the players of the series. Several all-action displays, especially an eye-catching turn against the All Blacks, saw him win plaudits from across the rugby world.
With Wales’s injury list only growing longer, Navidi is likely to start for Wales, probably at 6 if Moriarty is fit, in at least the first two rounds. And if he carries on his form from the autumn, he may well become undroppable.
Like Victorian gentlemen returning from their Grand Tour, in 2017 Gatland finally decided to bring the ‘two ballers’ selection policy back from the Lions tour of New Zealand to his all too one-dimensional Welsh team. It remains to be seen whether this will result in a structural wonder or a mere folly, but in the emergence of Owen Williams, Wales already have a cornerstone on which to build.
A lot will rest on whether Williams is able to kick on from a promising start for Wales, and he certainly has the game to do so. Personally, I think this is his time.
Round by round notes
Round 1: Scotland (home)
The Scots are having a long-overdue renaissance, which is fantastic for the tournament. After a hugely impressive autumn, they’ll back themselves in this fixture, especially against injury-ravaged Wales – who are also notoriously slow starters. But Scotland have their injury problems too, and Wales are very hard to beat at home. I think Wales will upset the odds and nick this one. (Wales by 8)
Round 2: England (away)
Nothing fires up the Welsh like a trip to Twickenham, but the stark truth is England are just way ahead of them at the moment. Famous days like 1999 and 2015 show anything can happen, but it’s hard to look beyond a home win here. (England by 10)
Round 3: Ireland (away)
Another tough trip for Wales. This fixture was once seen as something of an anomaly, where home advantage was reversed and the away side won more often than not. But the natural order seems to have been reversed in recent years, so unfortunately you have to fancy the classy Ireland in Dublin. Wales will push them close though.
(Ireland by 4)
Round 4: Italy (home)
Poor old Italy are making glacial progress these days; if any at all. So, even though Wales are probably the home nation that have struggled most against them in the past, you’d expect a comfortable home win here. (Wales by 15)
Round 5: France (home)
With their woes showing no signs of abating, and the appointment of Jacques Brunel doing little to lift the mood across the channel, this could be a long seven weeks for the once mighty French. Given they’ll most likely have nothing to play for at this point, and playing for pride not really their thing, I can see Wales chasing Les Bleus away and ending on a high. (Wales by 18)
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Author: Hywel Roberts
Hywel is out resident Welsh expert and offers his thoughts and insights into England's greatest local rivals.