As we continue our build up to the 2010 RBS Six Nations, Jonny McLeod brings us the first in the series of team profiles as he examines Wales’ prospects in this year’s competition.
Wales will be buoyed by the return of some key players with Lee Byrne, Adam Jones and Stephen Jones all set to time it right just for the start of the Championships. Byrne’s comeback should add fresh impetuous to their attacking game with his raids from full-back, as well as security under the high and a huge kick return should teams insist on a kicking duel.
The Welsh will be just as delighted to see prop Adam Jones back in action. Their scrum more than creaked against Australia in November but his return to the front row alongside Gethin Jenkins and Matthew Rees should ensure a stable platform. And if they can find a way of bring them into the game, Shane Williams and Leigh Halfpenny are two of the best finishers in the Championships.
If they can correct some of their defensive alignment issues from the autumn, they have a solid centre and will be tough to crack. Stephen Jones is about as reliable as they come from the tee and Leigh Halfpenny’s mighty boot means opponents’ transgressions in their own half will be punished.
Wales have lost momentum over the past year. Their attacking game was shown up to be pedestrian and predictable during the autumn internationals, scoring just four tries in four matches, and their confidence has eroded accordingly. They have become over-reliant on the physicality of Jamie Roberts and Andy Powell, and teams worked them out (as England did last year with Joe Worsley forming a midfield wall). Their carrying game in the forwards has also lost dynamism. Greater variety will be required.
With Mike Phillips and Dwayne Peel injured, scrum half is a major worry for Warren Gatland. Two of their scrum-halves in the original squad are without international experience – Richie Rees and 17-year-old Tom Prydie – betraying a lack of depth which is not restricted to the number nine shirt. This, though, will be a crucial position requiring decisive leadership if Wales are to rekindle their dynamic off-loading game that so suits the likes of Martyn Williams, Gethin Jenkins and Shane Williams.
Coaches perspective: Warren Gatland
“Our first match at Twickenham could set the tone for the Championship for both sides, we will both be desperate to win that first up match. We then come to the Millennium Stadium for two home matches and the support we have there will make a huge difference to us.”
Key player: Lee Byrne
The Ospreys full-back was dearly missed during the Autumn internationals but he has returned from injury and should bring an extra dimension to their attacking game. A potent strike runner, Byrne has the ability to burst into the line and break through the opposition defence with his searing pace and instinctive angles.
One to watch: Martin Roberts
Wales have a number of youngsters, such as Tom Evans, Jonathan Davies, Sam Warburton and Dan Biggar, who could challenge the senior players. But Scarlets scrum half Martin Roberts could be the most important. With Dwayne Peel still a doubt, and with Mike Phillips injured, Roberts has the potential to take the number nine spot. Wales could be relying on the 23-year-old, aided by Scarlets team-mate Stephen Jones, to dictate the tempo of their game which will be crucial to their hopes.
Stadium: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
The proximity of the crowd to the pitch creates an intense setting. And though not as intimidating as the other stadiums, the rousing singing of the Welsh fans make for an awesome atmosphere and an impassioned Welsh team. Three fixtures at home, including against France, will be a distinct advantage.
Wales’ Six Nations Fixtures:
Sat 6 Feb v England, Twickenham Stadium, London
Sat 13 Feb v Scotland, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Fri 26 Feb v France, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Sat 13 Mar v Ireland, Croke Park, Dublin, Ireland
Sat 20 Mar v Italy, Millennium Stadium, Cardiff
Last season: 4th