It has been one piece of bad news after another for Welsh rugby fans recently. A painfully poor autumn series saw them lose to Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia, on the back of a 3-0 whitewash on their summer tour down under. It is their worst sequence of results since the 2002/2003 season, when they lost 10 games on the bounce, and their misery has been compounded by consistently bad reports from the physios.
On the medical front, Rhys Priestland, Luke Charteris, Bradley Davies, Aaron Jarvis, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate and Huw Bennett will all certainly be absent for at least the beginning of the tournament. There is some slightly more optimistic news, however, concerning other players. “Ian (Evans) and Ryan (Jones) are being assessed on a daily basis, but it’s still very much positive,” says Rob Howley. “We’ll be in a better position to know if they’ll be available on Monday. In reference to Ryan, the scans have showed there’s no fracture – it’s just a case of the healing process now. We’re confident that he’ll be available for selection.”
A sliver of good news, then, as Wales’ injury crisis is particularly acute in the second row, a position that Ryan Jones has plenty of experience in. Instead of using it as an excuse, Howley is looking at the long injury list as a positive thing. “We’re looking at the positive side of it – an opportunity to give players who are young and talented a chance.”
With news reports focussing on the men who are out, it is one man who is being welcomed back after injury that Howley wants to focus on. And rightly so, as it is one of Wales’ talismans; a man without whom they rarely perform to the best of their ability. “It’s good to welcome back Adam Jones. We certainly missed him in the autumn series. When you look at his influence in the world game, he’s one of the best tight-heads in world rugby.”
One position that hasn’t been affected by injury is open-side flanker. It’s a straight shoot-out between two players most nations would kill to have available: captain Sam Warburton and Justin Tipuric. With Dan Lydiate, who formerly had the other flanker spot nailed down, injured, is there a chance we could see the two of them lining up next to each other? “I’d be more than happy to play anywhere in the back row,” says Warburton. “I’ve had moments where I’ve played across the back row; when I first came into the team I was playing 6 with Martyn Williams at 7.”
When asked if that were perhaps taking a bit of a risk, Howley, tongue firmly in cheek, replied, “I agree with everything Sam says.” All jokes aside, though, a Warburton/Tipuric combo could have a devastating effect on the quality of ball that other teams find themselves with. The problem would be finding a balance between that breakdown nous and making the hard yards ball-carrying.
Warburton is keen to focus on the fact that they are coming into the tournament as reigning Grand Slam champions, rather than their terrible run of results. “It’s a really nice feeling, coming in as champions. The squad will take great confidence from that. We may not have done as well results-wise over the last 12 months, but, particularly against Australia, a lot of the games could have gone our way.”
He is also of the opinion that autumn form doesn’t count for much now. “I think you have to wait until after the first or second game to see who shapes up, really. I think it’s very hard to predict who’s going to play well at this moment in time.”
The truth is, Wales are not as bad a team as the form book suggests. Some close results that haven’t gone their way, along with the aforementioned injury crisis, have combined to paint a picture that isn’t as bleak as it seems. Captain Warburton acknowledges this. “That’s just sport; there are ups and downs. The message is that we need to play with more confidence; when we do that we put in better performances.”
But where does this confidence come from if you’re not winning matches? “That’s a good question,” Warburton concedes. Talking of confidence is easy; it’s a lot more difficult to actually feel it when you’re on a losing streak. Still, he remains ebulliently positive. “I don’t think you become a bad side overnight, just like you don’t become a good one. It wasn’t long ago that we had some really good wins. People are talking as if Welsh rugby has gone down the pan, but it’s easily recoverable. It’s a similar squad to the one we had last year, and players know we can lift the trophy again.”
In many ways, the Ireland match couldn’t come soon enough. Warburton is at pains to pinpoint the importance of momentum, and the only way to build any of that is by playing, and winning. In that sense, it is fortunate that they find themselves at home for their first game. “We know first hand how important momentum is. You win your first match and your second match, and training becomes a great place to turn up to. People are just happier. The home games will be sell-outs, and we’ve got three games on the road after the first one so it’s crucial to win that one.”
This Six Nations is set to be the ultimate test of character for the Welsh squad. Down on their luck, in poor form and with so many injuries, a loss in the opening game at home to Ireland could break them all together. From there, they go to Paris, Rome and Edinburgh in consecutive matches, none of which will be easy trips. If they can get a win and with it the confidence and momentum they insist is so important, though, there is enough quality in the squad, even with the injuries, that Wales know they can mount a title challenge again.