By Tom Walker | Head of Sport
Following disastrous Six Nations and Autumn Nations Cup campaigns, 2020 is very much a year to forget for Welsh rugby fans. Coming off the back of Warren Gatland’s 13 year reign as head coach and a gruelling 2019 World Cup campaign, maybe an off year was to be expected. But if that is the case you want to make, it puts incredible pressure on 2021 to show signs of progression under Wayne Pivac.
If playing for your country is not enough motivation, the prospect of the upcoming British and Irish Lions tour will be prominent in the minds of several Wales players. The likes of Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies and Alun Wyn Jones will have a lot riding on their performances in this championship if they wish to make that starting XV.
Speaking of Jones, the prospect of facing Ireland on the opening day without him looked like a daunting task, but the news that he is reaching full fitness will be a big boost to Pivac and his team. Jones has not played since injuring his knee during Wales’ Autumn Nations Cup win over Italy and was originally expected to be ruled out for 10 weeks after damaging knee ligaments. But true to form, the captain looks set to return ahead of schedule.
Wales are also monitoring the fitness of second row Cory Hill, prop Wyn Jones, flanker Josh Macleod and scrum-half Tomos Williams.
Pivac’s squad raised a few eyebrows, both with its inclusions and exclusions. Dan Lydiate is preferred over James Botham and Shane Lewis-Hughes despite not featuring for Wales since the game against Australia in November 2018.
Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Adam Beard return to add some more competition in the forwards, whilst Scarlets flanker Josh Macleod is named as the only uncapped player in the squad.
Pivac elected to choose the formerly mentioned Williams over Rhys Webb, with Scarlets scrum-halves Gareth Davies and Kieran Hardy also included.
“Rhys and I had a good chat his morning around the accuracy of his passing game, which he needs to work on and get those numbers back up,” said Pivac.
“We questioned his pace at the top end of the game. The other three all bring electric pace, we know that. That is something in question at the moment with Rhys but he’s not out of the loop in playing for Wales in the future.”
A pretty brutal assessment, but scrum half is a pretty staked position for Wales a notable was always a realistic possibility.
Hallam Amos is recalled, while Louis Rees Zammit continues his rise to stardom and will be looking to push for the other winger position with Josh Adams being a rather immovable object on the right wing. Liam Williams will miss the first game due to suspension, so with Halfpenny at fullback there is a realistic chance Rees-Zammit could make the starting XV against Ireland in Cardiff.
A good performance from the 20-year-old could provide a selection headache for Pivac, but one I am sure he will welcome.
A fifth-place finish in last year’s campaign still makes for grim reading and there will have to be an improvement on the one victory in the 2020 championship if Pivac wants the questions directed his way to stop.
The head coach clearly has a sense of optimism heading into Sunday’s opener, saying Wales have enough to win the whole tournament.
A rather hopeful assessment in my eyes, but the squad certainly looks better on paper than it did in the autumn period. Whether that translates to the pitch is another matter, and can only be truly analysed after seeing the product on Sunday afternoon.