Welsh rugby players and fans alike will be hoping that the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium will prove to be decisive during their home games in the upcoming Six Nations campaign. The tournament begins this Friday with a fixture that has raised the pulses of rugby fans on both sides of the Severn Bridge in anticipation: Wales versus England.
Head coach Warren Gatland’s thirty four-man squad selection was largely unsurprising, although the respective inclusion and exclusion of Gareth Anscombe and Adam Jones did raise a few eyebrows.
Jones’ failure to make the cut follows on from him missing out in the Autumn Internationals, and has prompted his retirement from international rugby – the iconic style of rugby and hair associated with the Cardiff Blues prop will be sorely missed.
Jones has stated that he is happy with his international career in retrospect, despite being tantalisingly close to a century of caps; he will reflect positively on ninety five caps for his country, five British & Irish Lions appearances, as well as three Welsh Grand Slams. New Zealand-born Anscombe brings versatility to the squad as he is competent at full-back, centre and fly-half. The Blues player is eligible through his mother and has been in fine form at Arms Park this season.
Current Cardiff University medic Hallam Amos, of the Newport Gwent Dragons, and 2013 graduate Jamie Roberts, of Racing Metro, also got the nod from Wales’ director of rugby.
Leading the old and the new faces is Sam Warburton, who enters his fourth Six Nations as captain with his side in decent form. This autumn Wales ended their southern hemisphere hoodoo by grinding out a 12-6 win over South Africa, after narrowly losing to Australia and being well beaten by New Zealand. This is certainly not imperious form but is also not a bad shape to be in all things considered.
The Friday night floodlights will add to the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium, and this amphitheatre is poised to welcome England in the series opener. This already emotionally-charged fixture carries heightened importance; a good or bad result here could set the tone for the rest of the campaign for both teams. England have an extensive injury list in an already relatively inexperienced squad, and Wales will surely look to capitalise and assert themselves on their opponents from the first whistle, to put right the 29-18 defeat at Twickenham in March 2014.
The settled and tested Welsh centre partnership of Roberts and Jonathan Davies should have the beating of their as-yet undecided English counterparts. Gatland has a back three of Leigh Halfpenny, Alex Cuthbert and George North at his disposal whereas Stuart Lancaster’s likely trio of Mike Brown, Jonny May and Jack Nowell (or Anthony Watson) do not carry the same threat. In a recent European cup-tie between Racing Metro and Northampton Saints, Roberts faced Luther Burrell, a likely candidate for the role of inside-centre in England’s line-up. What was evident in Metro’s 32-8 win was the sheer dominance Roberts enjoyed over Burrell with the ball-in-hand, which boded well for Friday’s fixture.
The last time Cardiff hosted this game, the home side humbled their noisy neighbours 30-3. However, another result of this magnitude is improbable; despite the aforementioned injuries, England still boast a strong pack. In the Autumn International series the English scrum went tail-to-tail with the best the Southern Hemisphere had to offer, and often got the better of them. However, the Red Dragons can be quietly confident that if they perform to their optimum, backed by a partisan home crowd, the defeat eleven months ago at Twickenham will be avenged largely thanks to the firepower of the backline and the boot of Halfpenny.
The only other side to visit Cardiff are Ireland, who travel to the Welsh capital in week four. The Irish have injury problems of their own with a shortage at fly-half, though Jonathan Sexton is only set to miss the opener and should be back for the game in Wales. Since the retirement of the talismanic Brian O’Driscoll, Ireland approach their first Six Nations without him in impeccable form; in the autumn they won all three games versus South Africa, Australia and Georgia. Again, home advantage might be the deciding factor in the game, as Wales look to banish the demons of last year’s 26-3 drubbing in Dublin.
For what should be one of the easier games of the series, Wales travel to Scotland in week two. That said, Gatland’s men will be wary of an ever-improving Scotland side under Vern Cotter. After a week’s rest, a trip to Paris is next on the agenda in what is a potentially tricky tie against an inconsistent French outfit. Les Bleus have some international heavyweights such as Thierry Dusautoir, Wesley Fofana and Matthieu Bastareaud, who will provide a physical test. On a good day France can compete with the best in the world, but often fall short – as seen in Cardiff last year. That day’s result of 27-6 in favour of the Dragons will act as encouragement to Warburton and co.
A spring afternoon in Rome is the most ideal finale for a wannabe title – or even Grand Slam-winning side. Wales could very conceivably achieve this accolade, but so much hinges on the opener against the old enemy this coming Friday.