Wales will hope Josh Adams’ impromptu excursion to a rumoured gender-reveal ceremony is not indicative of problems to come for Wayne Pivac’s squad. The pressure is on a set of men used to winning Grand Slams and touring with the Lions, and how they respond to being written off in certain sections of the media will be an insight into their resolve for the coming months. The backs-to-the-wall mentality may, in fact, help Alun Wyn Jones’ and his senior players, and if there is a collective will to prove the doubters wrong, a few opposing sides may well rue choice words from local media.
Whichever way you cut it, Wales’ stock has fallen in 2020. After being ranked No 1 side in the world in 2019 August 2019, they lost six Tests on the bounce and a first home game against Scotland since 2002. The reasons were complex, but there is hope. In a Lions year, even the most mediocre Welsh side will drag itself from its torpor and produce inspired performances.
Their coach, Wayne Pivac, has sounded a more cautious tone ahead of the tournament, with less of an onus on playing fast and loose. In their ledger, they still have the talismanic Alun Wyn Jones to count on, and he will be ably abetted by Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies and Taulupe Faletau, who will all be anxious to prove they’re not yesterday’s men. Throw in a rejuvenated George North and blindingly quick Louis Rees-Zammit and you have a side who still have the potential to land a knockout blow. Wales have to make themselves unpleasant to play against again, while showing a cohesiveness that has been lacking for too long.
Since the departure of Warren Gatland, after a wildly successful 12-year stint, the incumbent, Wayne Pivac has struggled to thrust his coaching imprint onto the squad. The spine of a wildly successful squad is ageing and how Pivac evolves it will dictate whether he takes Wales to the 2023 World Cup in France. The set-piece has been a concern. The lineout has crumbled, and the once vaunted defence is now porous. Indeed, it will be fascinating to see if Gethin Jenkins, a relatively inexperienced coach, can imbue the same sort of pride and technical excellence Shaun Edwards did over his long tenure.
The return of Dan Lydiate, one of the best tacklers in the game is instructive to their gameplan. There is also work to do offensively under Stephen Jones. The cutting-edge they boasted when winning the 2019 Grand Slam, with Gareth Anscombe at the tiller, has lost its spark, and Wales have, in truth, been a pale imitation of their former selves.
Most valuable player
Others are lauded for their flashes of brilliance, fleet of foot and mercurial presence but if the pressure is on and you need a reliable, hard-edged fly-half, who also happens to be a world-class kicker and braver than the Red Baron in the air, then Dan Biggar is your man. After a quiet Nations Cup, his form has picked up with Northampton’s resurgence and Wayne Pivac will expect him to drive the side on before the game breaks up and Callum Sheedy or Jarrod Evans, looks to dart through gaps, or put ball-carriers into holes. With 87 caps, alongside, Johnny Sexton (101) and Owen Farrell (92), Biggar is one of the grand old men of the Six Nations and pivotal to Wales’ success.
Player to watch
Barely a year ago, Johnny Williams was recovering from testicular cancer, but throw things forward 12 months and he was leading a committed rear-guard action against England (his country of birth) and inspiring those around him. At 6ft 3in and over 16 stones, he is a pivot in midfield with which the outside backs can work off, and with a booming right-boot and deft offloading skills. Williams has all the weapons needed to thrive at the top level.
What the coach says
Wayne Pivac: “Clearly the set-piece was an issue (in the Nations Cup). We’re doing a lot of work on that to make sure we have a platform to operate. No matter what you do in attack, if you don’t have the platform to launch from then it makes things very difficult. So to improve in that area is a big drive for us.”
The pivotal game for Wales is the Ireland game, where, despite playing in Cardiff, they will go in as marginal underdogs. If they can win that and head to Edinburgh buoyed, they can compete in the top half of the Six Nations table. If they fail their audition against Andy Farrell’s men, it could be a drawn out tournament that could put Pivac under real pressure.
Wales Six Nations squad
Forwards: Rhys Carre, Wyn Jones, Rhodri Jones, Elliot Dee, Ryan Elias, Ken Owens, Leon Brown, Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Will Rowlands, Cory Hill, Dan Lydiate, Josh Navidi, Aaron Wainwright, Taulupe Faletau, Josh MacLeod, Justin Tipuric.
Backs: Gareth Davies, Tomos Williams, Kieran Hardy, Dan Biggar, Callum Sheedy, Jarrod Evans, Johnny Williams, Jonathan Davies, Nick Tompkins, Owen Watkin, George North, Josh Adams, Hallam Amos, Louis Rees-Zammit, Leigh Halfpenny, Liam Williams
Ireland (a) Saturday 6 Feb, 15.00
Scotland (h) Saturday 13 Feb, 16.45
England (a) 27 Feb, 16.45
Italy (h) 13 Mar, 14.15
France (a) 20 Mar, 20.00
Six Nations stats
Most Six Nations appearances: Alun Wyn Jones (58)
Most Six Nations points: Stephen Jones (467)
Most Six Nations tries: Shane Williams (22)
Captain of Wales on most occasions: Alun Wyn Jones (20)