Six Nations Preview and Prediction: Wales
Home ground: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff.
Interim head coach: Rob Howley
From Adam Jones and Gethin Jenkins at the coalface through skipper Sam Warburton to George North looming large out wide, Wales possess performers capable of influencing Test matches. A well-worn cliché – form is temporary, class is permanent – can provide comfort.
While the announcement of Howley’s 35-man squad a fortnight ago undeniably exposed a lack of depth in certain positions, there were encouraging inclusions. Eli Walker’s electric feet can light up the tournament. More pressingly, Justin Tipuric must have earned a prolonged period at openside, even if his captain must be shifted across the back row.
There will be no dearth of creativity. There never is. But this Wales side has to incite structure. In the midst of an injury catastrophe, the pack can still find parity with the help of fit-again trio Ian Evans, Ryan Jones and Richard Hibbard. From there, all eyes go to the midfield, where Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies have Lions places to win. A sleeping dragon is still a dangerous one.
Rarely can Grand Slam champions have headed into a defence of their credentials shrouded in such uncertainty. Seven successive defeats – November’s 26-19 reverse to Samoa the most ignominious – will have left a psychological scar, despite Warburton’s protestations to the contrary.
Overwhelming factors in this horror trot have been worrying lapses of physicality and composure at crucial points. Unfortunately, these are not easy facets to improve. Tellingly, there was no tortuous trip to Poland this time round, perhaps in a bid to preserve the dwindling reserves Wales have left. Howley has as much to prove as his charges. The slide has to stop.
Player(s) to watch: Dan Biggar and James Hook
The cruellest of critics might argue that Rhys Priestland’s ruptured Achilles tendon has created an essential opportunity for change at fly-half. They’d have a point. Quite frankly, the Scarlet’s stuttering decision-making was crippling Wales.
Circumstances have now decreed that Biggar and Hook – probably in that order, with the mercurial Perpignan man coming off the bench – will share the first-receiver slot, and with it a crucial role in reviving Wales. With bundles of talent outside them, Mike Phillips or Lloyd Williams occupying fringe defences and Leigh Halfpenny smashing goals over from everywhere, pragmatism and territory will be the order of the day.
Still just 23, Biggar has been steady without ever reaching the realms of spectacular in Ospreys colours. Now, though, he can lay foundations for an extended run ahead of some promising young pretenders. Four years his senior, Hook might just be starting to sweat. It would be a great shame if his considerable skills were banished to Gavin Henson-like obscurity.
Last season: 1st
It is so easy to lean on retrospect, but the glorious Grand Slam did offer subtle hints at troubles to come. Victory in Dublin came against the run of play, only twin sin-binnings helped to squeeze past Scotland and Scott Williams literally stole triumph out of Courtney Lawes’ paws at Twickenham in the final stages of a cagey contest. Not one match featured a prolonged, coherent display.
Even so, the Six Nations solely places stock on the final result. Led by Dan Lydiate’s manic tackling, the Welsh emerged unbeaten. The same bloody-mindedness this time would be marvellous.
The tribalism of local competition will act as an invigorating inspiration for those who have faltered in recent months, but the road to redemption is long. In this most open of years, travelling to France represents an extremely tough proposition. Moreover, Ireland and England are resurgent. More agony awaits, I fear.
By Charlie Morgan