Next in our set of previews ahead of the 2017 Six Nations, we examine the prospects of Rob Howley’s Wales.
With regular head coach Warren Gatland focusing on his role as the British and Irish Lions’ boss, there will be pressure on his replacement, Howley. He has big boots to fill as, under Gatland, Wales have finished amongst the frontrunners on the table regularly in recent years. That said, their last tournament win was in 2013.
Howley is no stranger to the job as he has taken over the reins from Gatland before and guided them to victory during the 2013 tournament. However, there are still questions over his abilities as a head coach as he has lost seven out of 15 Tests while in charge of his country.
But despite that record, Wales head into this year’s tournament with a degree of confidence after winning three out of four fixtures during last year’s end-of-year Tests.
Last Year: Wales delivered some indifferent performances and eventually finished in second place on the table, three points adrift of eventual champions England, with three wins, a loss and a draw.
In their opener against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium, they fought their way back from a 13-0 deficit to lead 16-13 until a late Jonny Sexton penalty earned the hosts a 16-16 draw.
That result meant they were always going to play catch-up to eventual tournament winners England and they had to dig deep in their next match, at home to Scotland, before a late George North try sealed a 26-23 triumph.
Wales kept alive their Championship hopes by beating France 19-10 in their next match at the Principality Stadium before suffering a 25-21 defeat in a thrilling encounter against England at Twickenham.
They finished off their campaign with a superb allround effort in a 67-14 thrashing off Italy in Cardiff but had to settle for second place in the standings behind England.
This Year: They kick off their campaign against Italy at the Stadio Olimpico and while this fixture has generally been an easy one for Wales, they must not underestimate the Azzurri who are a potential banana skin in their own backyard so early in the tournament.
If they can get through their opener with a win, a tougher challenge lies in wait in the form of defending champions England at the Principality Stadium. Wales will be out for revenge as Eddie Jones’ troops won a thriller when these sides met in the corresponding fixture at Twickenham last year, but that will be easier said than done as England also beat them in Cardiff in 2015.
They then head to Murrayfield to take on an ever-improving Scotland outfit in Round Three before hosting Ireland in their next fixture.
These two fixtures could make or break Wales’ campaign as Scotland under the guidance of head coach Vern Cotter have proven that they are no pushovers on their home patch, while Ireland will be brimming with confidence after they finished off 2016 by becoming the first Northern Hemisphere side, since England in 2003, to beat the Southern Hemisphere’s traditional powerhouses of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa in the same calendar year.
Wales end their campaign in Paris against France which will be another difficult task as les Bleus’ are on a mission to restore their pride after poor performances in recent years.
Key Players: Alun Wyn Jones has proven in recent years that he is one of the best locks in the game. This year there will be the added pressure of captaincy and although he has captained his country before, it will be interesting to see how he copes with the leadership role – especially his decision making – during a high profile tournament like the Six Nations.
The opposite is true of Sam Warburton. His decision to relinquish the captaincy should free him up to concentrate on his game although he might have to do that on the blindside flank as his preferred openside spot is currently occupied by Justin Tipuric, who was in fine form during last year’s November Tests. Star full-back Leigh Halfpenny‘s goalkicking will also be important especially in tight matches.
Players to watch: After his recent concussion problems in 2016, the performances of George North will be closely scrutinised. There have been calls from some quarters for North to retire but the 24-year-old will be keen to put his head injuries behind him and prove that he is still one of the game’s best wings.
With Lions places up for grabs, several players will be keen to impress their regular coach Gatland in a bid to make the famous touring team’s Test line-up. One such player is Taulupe Faletau who started the Lions final Test in Australia in 2013. Although he is battling to overcome a knee injury, a fit Faletau is a must for Wales as his ball carrying will be crucial to give his side much-needed momentum.
Prospects: Wales have an experienced and settled look to them, but they have a tough draw. Playing just two matches at home will make it difficult for them to compete for honours.
Although Howley has guided them to Six Nations glory in Gatland’s absence in 2013, the Lions boss’ absence will be keenly felt this time around.
If they can hit the ground running in their opener against Italy, it will boost their confidence, which will be needed as their two home fixtures are against England and Ireland – the teams who are expected to battle it out for the top spot this year.
Although those matches will be in Cardiff, England and Ireland will be favoured to take the spoils and a third place finish on the table looks like the best bet for Wales in 2017.
Sunday, February 5 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, February 11 v England (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 25 v Scotland (Murrayfield)
Friday, March 10 v Ireland (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 18 v France (Stade de France)