Wales ranked as 'outsiders'
Wales ranked as 'outsiders'SHARE
Wales are rated rank outsiders to defend their Six Nations title after yet another disastrous European campaign by Welsh regions, the absence of coach Warren Gatland and a raft of injuries.
Not one of the four Welsh regions progressed beyond the pool phase of the European Cup or Challenge competitions, as player limitations were harshly highlighted.
Ospreys were the most successful with two victories, albeit over Italian club Treviso, and a draw with Leicester. Scarlets lost all of their games and Cardiff Blues won just once in Cup action.
Newport Gwent-Dragons claimed two victories in the Challenge Cup, over whipping boys Mogliano, for a grand total of five wins in 30 outings for the four teams.
The so-called 'fifth region' in the Principality, with club chiefs accusing the Welsh Rugby Union of thinking only of their own profit margins, Wales come into the Six Nations on the back of seven successive defeats.
After Grand Slams in 2005, 2008 and 2012, the latter two won in tournaments that stood out for their desperate lack of quality action on show, not many pundits are backing Wales to up their game this season.
Losing to Australia and New Zealand is one thing, but defeats by Argentina and Samoa hit Welsh morale hard.
To make matters worse, Warren Gatland will not be at Wales' helm as he sits out the tournament to concentrate on his role as head coach of the British and Irish Lions for their summer tour to Australia.
Rob Howley will take over as interim Wales boss, in a move that rankles many home fans, and the former international scrum-half is charged with the ominous task of bucking the losing trend.
"We have spoken to the players and Rob Howley has made it clear we are on the back of a run of games without a win," assistant coach Robin McBryde said.
"We cannot be happy with it. We have to make sure all members of the squad feel that pain and hurt as much as the coaches. The desire to put that right has to be forefront in their minds.
"We are not looking any further than the Irish game, which is a big test to start. We have to take the hurt and pain we felt in the summer and autumn and come out fighting, showing we are better than that.
"This is a fresh page and regional form should not come into it. We are together, focused on getting a positive start to the Six Nations."
After hosting Ireland at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on February 2, Wales then face three away matches, against France on February 9, Italy on February 23 and Scotland on March 9, before entertaining England on March 16.
This Six Nations will also have the Lions as a crucial backdrop, and many Welsh players improved dramatically before the previous British and Irish tour to South Africa in 2009.
The likes of centre Jamie Roberts, scrum-half Mike Phillips, and the front row of Gethin Jenkins, Mathew Rees and Adam Jones made up the backbone of that Lions team that went down 2-1 to the Springboks in a fantastic series.
They are all available for the Six Nations, although the injury list precludes towering lock duo Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies, influential fly-half Rhys Priestland and prop Aaron Jarvis.
Lock Alun Wyn Jones, centre Ashley Beck, flanker Dan Lydiate and hooker Huw Bennett are slated to return from injury at some time during the tournament.
If Wales are to buck their losing run, Howley will have to make sure the experienced players step up to the mark, and when doing so, drag with them a host of younger, exciting players in the hope of forming a coherent team.
Player to watch
Eli Walker: Former Wales captain Gwyn Jones has labelled the uncapped 20-year-old wing as exciting as any player in Europe, while current Wales coach Rob Howley has seen similarities with Wales great, and Walker's fellow Ospreys flyer Shane Williams, who retired last season.