Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s fifth placed finishers, Warren Gatland’s Wales.
Having finished a disappointing second-last in 2017, Gatland’s charges will be looking for a vast improvement. It was a shock to the system for a side who finished second the year before.
Despite England vying for a record third successive Six Nations title, the British and Irish Lions boss remains bullish about his side’s chances.
When asked who he thought would win the tournament, Gatland replied: “Wales, I think we’ll win the tournament.”
But can they do so in spite of the current injury crisis plaguing the squad? Sam Warburton, Jonathan Davies and Rhys Webb will miss the whole tournament. Three more British and Irish Lions – Taulupe Faletau, Liam Williams and Dan Biggar – will miss the opening round at least.
Last year: Wales opened their account with a 33-7 win over Italy in Rome in Round One, then followed that up with a narrow 21-16 defeat to England at Twickenham.
Two weeks later, they suffered a very disappointing 29-13 loss to Scotland at Murrayfield. However, they bounced back with a 22-9 victory over Ireland in Cardiff.
In their final game, they were narrow 20-18 losers to France in Paris, which meant they finished a disappointing fifth on the standings.
This year: Although Wales have a number of experienced players injured, they have solid replacements. Many feel James Davies’ inclusion is long overdue as the Scarlets fetcher gets his reward for consistent club performances.
James’ older brother Jonathan will be a big miss after undergoing foot surgery but the Hadleigh Parkes and Scott Williams centre combination has showed how devastating it can be at regional and international level of late.
There will be no room for complacency this time around as Wales look to exact revenge on a much-improved Scotland first up before their most difficult game against England a week later.
They have a two-week break before facing Ireland and another two-week break before tackling Italy and closing off hosting France the week after that.
Key players: Although he is a doubt for the opening round, Dan Biggar‘s performances will be pivotal to the outcome of Wales’ Six Nations.
The Ospreys fly-half’s only problem is consistency. When he is on song, he is a world-beater with his expert tactical kicking, astute decision-making and impressive all-round skill-set.
The Northampton Saints-bound 28-year-old has added a Beauden Barrett-like cross-kick to his game which he used to devastating effect when he masterminded the destruction of the Springboks at the beginning of December.
Hadleigh Parkes has been a revelation since making scoring two tries on his debut against the Springboks in December. The New Zealand-born centre has continued his fine form in the club game, having formed a lethal centre combination with Williams.
Players to watch: Keep an eye out for Josh Navidi, the breakthrough player of 2017. Navidi stole the show in the recent November internationals, producing some outstanding performances. His ability to force turnovers at the breakdown area, coupled with his high tackle and carry rate, Navidi is a workaholic fetcher any side would love to have in their ranks.
While James Davies is not the largest flank, he is one of the fittest and industrious. He’ll give you 15-20 tackles a match, a couple of turnovers and deserves the chance to fill the big boots of Warburton.
Prospects: While they possess wonderful individuals in their ranks, Wales do not have the same cohesion as England or Ireland. Gatland seems to have fallen behind rivals Eddie Jones and Joe Schmidt in terms of innovation and thinking outside of the box.
They should have learnt their lesson from last year’s complacent showing when they face the Scots in their opening game. They’ll run England close, but victory seems too much of a stretch.
The Ireland game could go either way and will most probably determine whether Gatland’s men finish second or third as they should have too much firepower for Italy and France.
Saturday, February 3 v Scotland (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 10 v England (Twickenham Stadium)
Saturday, February 24 v Ireland (Aviva Stadium)
Sunday, March 11 v Italy (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 17 v France (Principality Stadium)