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Encouraging Six Nations start for Wales

After the first two games of their Natwest 6 Nations campaign, there is an overwhelming sense of positivity surrounding the Welsh camp.

One win, one defeat and countless positives provide the backdrop heading into the first mini-break of the campaign, a week off before heading to Dublin on Saturday, February 24.

A convincing 34-7 win over Scotland at the Principality Stadium in the opening round showed what this revamped side are capable of.

But on the flip side, a brave and controversial 12-6 defeat against old enemy England at Twickenham served as a reminder that their transformation remains a work in progress.

As expected, Warren Gatland’s side took the physical challenge to their opponents and never appeared to visibly match their underdogs tag.

Yet they simply lacked a cutting edge and accuracy in attack which they had possessed against the Scots, whilst England showed their class in the opening 15 minutes as well as with their second half defensive stand.

Owen Farrell’s majestic kick to set up Johnny May’s opening score, plus Joe Launchbury’s expert offload to allow May to cross again just moments later, meant Wales were always up against it.

Debate will continue to rage on over the decision to disallow a Gareth Anscombe try, with the TMO ruling there was no clear evidence of grounding despite footage appearing to show the Welsh player beat Anthony Watson to the ball.

There is no doubt a try at that stage would have changed the outlook of the game, but that is all ifs, buts and maybes.

The fact of the matter is Wales missed chances which a side of England’s quality tend to take. A sensational break from Aaron Shingler ended with a misjudged kick and chase, whilst a three-on-one breakaway out wide was foiled by a truly magnificent try-saving tackle by former Cardiff University student Sam Underhill.

There remains a sense of optimism despite the defeat; on another day it could have been Wales’ day and the momentum from the remarkable Scotland success should still manifest itself in Dublin next time out.

The opening game in Cardiff was always going to define the direction of this campaign for Wales. A defeat, as many were predicting against the Scots, would have most likely led to two more heavy losses against England and Ireland and a scrap to avoid the wooden spoon.

Instead, a comfortable victory paved the way for another encouraging performance at Twickenham which will lead to high hopes of earning a win at the Aviva Stadium.

With their well-documented injury problems, Gatland’s hand has been forced with regards to certain players and changes.

The results have been generally positive. Whether those in question will hold out the returning old guard after their lay-offs remains to be seen, but at the very least the injury crisis has generated some much-needed depth within the squad.

Fly-Half Rhys Patchell was in spell-binding form against Scotland, pulling the strings at 10, and whilst he struggled against England, late addition to the side Gareth Anscombe displayed his potential when he stepped in at outside half.

The Scarlets combinations across the back line have proved promising, with their clear understanding and chemistry manifesting itself both in attack and defence.

The only non-Scarlet to start in the backs against Scotland, Josh Adams, has also appeared right at home in a test jersey.

Two of the most impressive performers are also those who have, realistically, only got their chance due to injuries.

Back row pair Aaron Shingler and Josh Navidi have been imperious thus far, keeping Justin Tipuric out of the starting line-up and making the 6 and 7 jerseys respectively their own.

Cory Hill has been a rock in the second row alongside the colossal Alun Wyn Jones, whilst returning No.8 Ross Moriarty has been the bruising, physical presence expected at the back of the scrum.

A settled front row has been another strength, with Ken Owens also pivotal to a solid line-out.

The accuracy Gatland’s side had against Scotland would more than likely be enough to get them over the line against Ireland, and their title hopes are certainly far from over.

Two perhaps unexpected bonus points from the first two fixtures have left Wales right in the hunt. A win over Ireland would keep their chances alive, and with France and Italy unimpressive so far you would have to expect two further wins in Cardiff to follow.

Such a scenario would require Ireland to defeat England in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day to open the door for Wales, but stranger things have happened.

Regardless of whether they can lift the crown, Wales will be looking to build on their bright start with a revamped side and system which could well provide sustained, top-level success.

Unlike 12 months ago, there is a genuine sense that things have changed for Wales, and that the right steps are being taken to ensure they could head to Japan for the 2019 Rugby World Cup with realistic hope.

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