Preview: Six Nations - Wales
SPOTLIGHT ON TEAMS: Coming into the 2018 Six Nations, there is a positivity around Wales’ chances that has been absent for the last two or three tournaments.
Head coach Warren Gatland is one of the most polarising figures in rugby and there has been no lack of criticism of him and his coaching staff from the Welsh public over the last few years, with the trophies having dried up and the Grand Slams of 2008 and 2012 seeming a long time ago.
It was hardly an all-conquering autumn for Wales, either, having just snuck past Georgia and South Africa and suffered defeat at the hands of Australia and New Zealand, but there was an ambition to their play that at least gave fans hope of seeing a more clinical and multi-dimensional Wales side over the next few seasons.
This ambition, coupled with the excellent play of the Scarlets, the newly-crowned team of the people, has created a belief that Wales can go further this year and make more of an impact in the Six Nations. With bonus points again a factor in this year’s competition, Gatland’s men will be keen to top their tally of eight from last season, a figure which was just half that of the tries scored by England, the 2017 champions.
Back row balance and contact area work - The enviable resources that Wales have in their back row have been one of the consistent strengths of the side during Gatland’s tenure and those options are still formidable, despite injury ruling out Sam Warburton and Taulupe Faletau. Ross Moriarty and Justin Tipuric will be at the front of the queue to start, whilst Scarlets flanker James Davies is in line to win his first international cap. Ellis Jenkins, Josh Navidi and Aaron Shingler are also impactful options.
Midfield versatility - Another area of the team hit by a significant injury, with Jonathan Davies unavailable, but there is plenty of scope for Wales to keep opposition sides guessing with their midfield strategy. Hadleigh Parkes has been in scintillating form with the Scarlets and has been dovetailing nicely with Scott Williams, Owen Williams is the secondary playmaker option that Wales have not had for quite some time and Owen Watkin is a hard-runner who can keep his side on the front-foot.
No recognised Test fly-half - With Dan Biggar sidelined for the opening three rounds and Rhys Priestland suffering from a hamstring injury, Wales will have to go into their matches with Scotland, England and Ireland with a relatively inexperienced fly-half. Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe would look to be the front-runners right now, but Owen Williams could also be moved inside from the centre berth he occupied in the autumn. They are all capable of doing an excellent job, but those three fixtures are quite the deep end to be thrown in, especially with the contests against England and Ireland coming at Twickenham and the Aviva Stadium respectively and regular starting scrum-half Rhys Webb also sidelined.
Back-three thin and out of rugby shape - The news that Liam Williams suffered a relapse in his recovery from an abdominal injury was a real blow for Wales. He is in a race against time to be fit for the tournament opener against Scotland, but there is a worst-case scenario that he will have to have surgery and could miss the entire tournament. George North and Hallam Amos are both only just returning from injury and a way off the sharpness you would want from your starting wings. There will be plenty of attention on Steff Evans and Josh Adams over the next week, with both in the frame to start against Scotland. Again, like the fly-half situation, they both have the capability to be fine Test players, but they are inexperienced at this level.
Ross Moriarty - With Warburton out for the tournament and Faletau unlikely to be seen until the later rounds, the onus falls on Moriarty to lead the way in the back-row. He is a man that leads from the front, regardless, but his impact at the breakdown and as a ball-carrier will be more vital than ever this year.
Rob Evans - Evans has quietly matured into one of the more impressive loosehead props in world rugby and his impact as both a scrummager and ball-player will be needed over the next two months. Wales are making strides in the way they play but they aren’t the All Blacks just yet, so if they can get this kind of dual impact from their loosehead, they will be better off for it.
Rhys Patchell - There is no guarantee Gatland sees Patchell as part of his preferred XV but when you look at what he has been doing for the Scarlets, his positional versatility and the injuries to Biggar and Priestland, it feels as though this is his time. Can he play with the same composure for Wales that he does with the Scarlets? If the answer is yes, Wales will be a dangerous team this year.
New Talent - Josh Adams
This could easily have been James Davies, who finally gets a much-deserved opportunity to crack the vaunted Wales back-row, but Adams has come from nowhere this season.
Well, not nowhere, as he is a former Wales U20 star and did an admirable job for Worcester Warriors last season, but his game has risen to a new level this season. He currently leads the Premiership try charts with nine scores to his name and in addition to that finishing ability, he is also good value to make big breaks each and every game, giving his side momentum and keeping them moving forward.
The leap to Test match rugby is a big one and there is no guarantee he will make it seamlessly, but there is no reason to doubt he won’t, either. He will be worth keeping an eye on during the championship.
It’s almost a shame that Wales’ evolution in the way they play is occurring at the same time that they get their toughest Six Nations fixture schedule. Wales may have three games at home this season, but their two away fixtures - England and Ireland - are arguably the two toughest fixtures in the tournament.
As encouraging as Wales’ potential is, it is difficult to see them emerging from London or Dublin with a win. Three wins from their three home games are certainly possible, although Scotland is looking threatening, too, and that game is by no means a given.
It is a boring prediction but a third or fourth place finish, away from the challenge for the title, seems most likely for Wales at this point. If they can see off Scotland, Italy and France in Cardiff and at least be competitive with England and Ireland, that will probably equate to a decent tournament for Gatland’s men.