by Sion Ford
It’s hard to gauge what success will look like for Wales this year. Expectations will be managed, but the successes of Gatland put an end to the excuses of a history of inconsistency.
There is still a quiet confidence and a mild expectation, but also a nervous uncertainty. It’s exciting, heightening the buzz caused by the return of the Six Nations.
The first playing squad properly announced by Wayne Pivac – causing more of a murmur than a stir – saw the core of last year’s Six Nations and World Cup playing groups returning.
Most surprising were the call-ups for Nick Tompkins, Will Rowlands, and WillGriff John, all of whom have proven themselves consistently in the English Premiership but are relatively unknown in Wales.
Only WillGriff John had come up through the Welsh regions, a former Cardiff Blues player, whereas Nick Tompkins and Will Rowlands both qualified through family. The quality of all, though, is beyond contention.
Tompkins has shone whenever he’s played for Saracens, Rowlands is a rugged operator who has been steadying the Wasps pack for years, and John has proven himself a capable scrummager with Sale.
Adding these players into the international squad is, if nothing else, a shrewd move by Pivac. They will bring with them the intensity that sets the Premiership apart as the domestic club league in Europe.
Cory Hill returns to the squad following his absence in the World Cup, now offering an option as back-row cover, while Owen Watkin, Johnny McNicholl and Jarrod Evans continue their international development.
The headline selections saw the inclusion of rising star Louis Rees-Zammit, and returning favourites Rhys Webb and Taulupe Faletau.
For Faletau, this will hopefully be the return from injury that sees him make the number 8 jersey his again. The same goes for Owen Williams, who has only recently made a return from injury but will be keener than most to take the opportunity he’s been given.
Webb faces an altogether different and interesting return to the Welsh squad, having to come in cold after the malheur of his exit from an entirely uninspiring time at Toulon. Competing against Gareth Davies and Tomos Williams, both of whom cemented their importance to Wales last year, will be the biggest challenge of Webb’s international career.
Wales’ campaign starts at home against Italy on February 1, a game that screams experimental teams and never-ending knock-ons. By the same token it could be an explosive start to the competition, the first opportunity for new squads under new coaches to go and rip into each other.
Pivac’s men will need to get their game moving quickly, and you sense with the pack chosen – large, but mobile and adaptable – they will use the game against Italy to build confidence in the pace of their attack.
A week later and it’s a trip to Dublin, with the Irish also undergoing a change of hands both at the top and on the ground. Facing down Johnny Sexton and his team-mates will be an early test of this Welsh side’s ability to win the Championship, make no mistake.
They will have to be at their best to overwhelm the Irish on their home turf; it will be a test of character, of concentration, and of their will to win in tough conditions.
Then it’s a return to Cardiff to face the French. They will be a largely unknown quantity, though the Welsh players can expect a physical war. Shaun Edwards will have set a fire in the French defence that may well take its toll on the Welsh contingent.
If Wales are still in title contention by this time, then it is surely the game against the English on March 7 that will prove the most extreme test. Winning at Twickenham is never anything less than a gruelling uphill battle that demands everything from you, and it could be a make or break moment for this new regime.
Finally, the competition ends with a showdown against arguably this year’s most fragile side, Scotland. Though they are not to be underestimated, Wales will want to finish the tournament at home with a dominant performance against our Celtic cousins.