Home ground: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Head Coach: Warren Gatland
Warren Gatland’s men are renowned for their powerful approach to the game. Wales tend to try to outmuscle European opposition and they rarely fail to get their monstrous runners round the corner when executing their attritional game plan.
The Welsh front row boasts the ever-impressive Richard Hibbard and the dynamic Gethin Jenkins, with Adam Jones returning to international duty to anchor the scrum. The back row is typically strong and well balanced, featuring the likes of Toby Faletau, 2012 Six Nations player of the year Dan Lydiate, Justin Tipuric, Andrew Coombs, Aaron Shingler and Sam Warburton, although the skipper has not played since the defeat to Australia in November.
Wales’ scintillating back three remains as ominous as ever. With the 2013 Six Nations player of the year Leigh Halfpenny and his meticulous boot at full back, the electric George North on one wing and the powerful Alex Cuthbert on the other, there is plenty of try-scoring potential.
The colossal Welsh backline is almost back to full strength, with the world class centre partnership of Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies named in the squad. Davies is still struggling with a pectoral injury but Gatland insists he will be fit for their game against France on 21 February.
Wale’s prospects of winning a historic hat trick remain as reliant on the Welsh medical team as they do on the players. While they do boast the bulk of the 2013 British and Irish Lions touring party, questions have been raised about the resulting fatigue of the players, subsequent to such an intense and extended playing period. The Autumn Internationals reminded Wales how rapidly a squad can be dismantled by injury and there are still concerns over the fitness of Adam Jones, Davies, Warburton and Roberts and their lack of recent game time.
The Welsh also lack strength in depth in the second row. Ian Evans’ 12-week ban and Bradley Davies’ injury leaves them short in the second row, with potential cover Ryan Jones also ruled out with a hamstring injury.
While the Welsh line speed and aggression around the fringes makes close-quarter confrontation lethal, attacking with plenty of width and pace often leaves Wales stretched and reeling – as the Irish and Australians have realised in recent times. Wales also have a tendency to get drawn into an aimless and stagnant kicking exchange, as we saw in the autumn, which can cancel out their exciting attacking game plan.
Player to watch: George North
The winger was, typically, Wales’ outstanding and most consistent performer throughout a turbulent autumn campaign. His destructive power is complemented by his agility, balance and acute sense of timing. And having already scored 15 tries for his country, the only thing opposition nations will find more frightening than the 21-year old’s pace, is his seemingly infinite potential.
Last season: 1st
When Roman Poite blew his whistle to signal the end of Wales’ 2013 opener, the Welsh were forced to accept their eighth straight defeat. A defeat that, in the end, lulled the remaining five nations into a false sense of title-retention insecurity.
But Wales swiftly reminded their competitors that regardless of a horrific autumn series, in the Six Nations, The Red Dragon is a different beast. Rob Howley’s men responded immediately and Halfpenny’s flawless boot and George North’s impossible finish helped Wales scrape past France and get their campaign on track.
Wales went on to complete two arduous victories against Italy and Scotland before running rampant against a jaded England side to secure a second successive Six Nations title.
If the Welsh players remain fit, they are more than capable of becoming the first nation to win a third successive Six Nations title. With a fully fit squad, Wales are arguably world class but undoubtedly Europe’s best.
Last season, they won all three of their away fixtures, and this year they are only faced with two. They must travel to the Aviva Stadium to take on Ireland, well aware that Joe Schmidt’s men still pride themselves on the fluid passing game that cut the Welsh apart last year. Wales must also travel to Twickenham to overcome a wounded England side that will be desperate for revenge. If they can overcome these considerable yet beatable obstacles, then they will make history.
By Nathan Hyde (@NathanHyde2)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images