By Reece Chambers
Since his appointment by the WRU in 2007, Warren Gatland has guided Wales to three Six Nations titles, including two grand slams. However, this will be the New Zealander’s final championship as Head Coach before he leaves at the end of 2019.
Gatland’s first five games as Wales’ Head Coach saw him lead his side to a Six Nations grand slam and he will be hoping to finish his Six Nations career in Wales with similar success.
Wales come into this Six Nations campaign with some good form under their belt after a record-breaking autumn international series. A fairly new-look Wales side completed their first ever clean sweep in an autumn series with four wins, including South Africa and Scotland.
Above all, Wales showcased their recent progress with their first win over Australia in over 10 years. A slender win of 9-6 over the Wallabies might not have been entertaining viewing for those inside the Principality Stadium, but it certainly showcased their ability to get over the finishing line.
Ahead of most Six Nations championships, predictions and previews are often decided by a quick look at the fixture list to see who poses the home advantage in crucial matches. For Wales, the fixture list may only show two home games, but they are arguably the two toughest games – England (matchday three) and Ireland (matchday five).
The home advantage Wales possess in Cardiff cannot be overlooked given the atmosphere generated by a passionate home crowd. Of course, English and Irish supporters will travel in big numbers to the Welsh capital, but Wales’ home support gives them significant hope.
Nevertheless, Wales’ home fixtures will only live up to their full potential if they start their campaign well. Gatland’s men travel to Paris on Friday night where they face the forever unpredictable France in the championship’s opening match. A win against France and then a win against Italy on matchday two would set up a pulsating tie against England on matchday three with everything to play for.
With Wales having arguably one of the more favourable fixture schedules in this championship, it will be up to their players to deliver on the pitch just as they had done in the autumn international series.
Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones leads his side out in the Six Nations for the first time in a number of years since the retirement of former captain Sam Warburton. The second row Welshman is due to be one of the most influential parts of Wales’ team as senior players will look to lead from the front. The 33-year-old showed no signs of slowing up in the autumn internationals with a number of impressive performances.
Fellow senior pro within the team, Jonathan Davies, will be just as important for Wales as they look to build on the expansive attacking strategy present in the autumn internationals. The Scarlets centre has been a lynchpin in Wales’ side over recent years with a contribution of 70 points over his 67-game international career. If the 30-year-old can replicate some of his previous success in the Six Nations, then Wales will be hopeful of pushing title favourites Ireland all the way.
Preparations ahead of the championships have been thwarted by numerous injuries to key players in the Welsh squad. Most recently, full-back Leigh Halfpenny was ruled out for the opening weekend against France – having suffered with concussion since November.
Injury concerns to Scott Williams and Liam Williams furthers Wales’ injury predicament in the backs with full-back options scarce. First choice scrum half, Gareth Davies, is also an injury doubt ahead of the start of the campaign.
For Wales, injury concerns could dictate how successful they are likely to be in this year’s Six Nations. Their strength and depth is far from that of Ireland and England which leaves them lower down the pecking order in pre-tournament predictions.
However, if injury worries are to subside after the first two matches and Wales beat both France and Italy, they could be in with a good chance of success ahead of three challenging matches.