Next, in our series of previews ahead of the Six Nations, we look at the prospects of last year’s fifth-place finisher Warren Gatland’s Wales.
This year’s edition of rugby’s biggest league comes with the added weight of the 2023 Rugby World Cup in France looming over the minds of players and coaches alike.
Wales enter 2023 with a completely different outlook following the dismissal of Wayne Pivac as head coach late last year, with the return of veteran manager Warren Gatland to the hot seat.
Wales had a tough year in 2022 as the Six Nations kicked off with an away match against an impressive Irish side to claim a comfortable 29-7 win.
The Welsh responded quite well with a 20-17 win over Scotland in Cardiff thanks to a 70th-minute drop goal from then skipper Dan Biggar which sealed the match, only to lose to England (23-19) a week later at Twickenham.
Wales managed a solid performance against eventual Grand Slam winners France, competing excellently against Fabien Galthie’s side but still losing 13-9 on the day.
The wheels would later start to fall during Pivac’s tenure as Wales suffered their first ever defeat to Italy as World Rugby’s Breakthrough Player of the Year Ange Capuozzo orchestrated an outstanding try in the dying moments to win 22-21.
After a decent match against South Africa in the mid-year series where they lost the series 2-1 and picked up their first win in the country, it all turned pear-shaped in the Autumn Nations series as Wales lost for the first time against Georgia – effectively sealing Pivac’s fate.
Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) returned to Gatland, who coached the team from 2007 to 2019 and won three Grand Slams and four Six Nations during his tenure. The New Zealander’s deal runs until this year’s World Cup with an option to extend to the 2027 flagship.
Gatland has a lot of work to do, but knows the modern Welsh rugby landscape better than anyone. There’s a lot of outside noise that he’ll have to navigate, with the WRU under pressure from nearly every angle.
However, if anyone can stabilize the ship it will be Gatland who will likely go a step further and have Wales attack again with threat.
Looking at the team, there is some serious talent in defense and defense. The tools are there. Gatland just has to collect the puzzle and fit the right pieces together as fast as possible.
Wales kick off their campaign with a visit from the world’s top tier Ireland on 4 February before a trip to Scotland in round two. Next, England will head to Cardiff in round three before Wales visit Italy and France for the final two rounds.
Number eight Taulupe Faletau he was one of Wales’ shining lights in an indifferent 2022 and boasts immense quality on both sides of the ball. The Cardiff man has performed incredibly well throughout and has racked up an impressive number in every game he has been involved in. One would expect Faletau to be a perfect starter as Gatland will be looking to strike a balance around the star with the plethora of options available alongside him.
Ken Owens he has been handed the captaincy by Gatland, who took over from Biggar, who led the team last season, and will have the huge task of setting the tone. The hooker has extensive experience with 86 test appearances for Wales and will be looking to build on his impressive form in the Autumn Nations series.
Captaincy or not, Dan Biggar he remains a key player for Gatland as the obvious first-choice half-back. The Welshman shoots well off-hand and on goal, is skilled in attack and is a decent defender. Wales say they want to improve their attack this season and the man from Toulon will be key. If Biggar plays well, Wales will have more and more chances in the Six Nations.
Players to watch
Christ Tsunza he is one of the hottest prospects globally having regularly showcased solid performances with Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership and Champions Cup. The giant stands 1.98m tall and weighs 112kg, adding some much needed physicality to the Welsh pack . Gatland has plenty of flank options, so it remains to be seen where and how Tshiunza will use. There’s always the option to move him to the second row to add more power to the tight five. However, the starlet is poised for a sustained run at Test level regardless of position and could become a powerhouse for Wales.
Wing of Dragons Rio Tintore burst onto the Test scene with a fantastic try against the All Blacks on his Cardiff debut. He continued to show good form for his club team with his electric pace and ball skills. With Louis Rees-Zammit expected to be out for the first two rounds, Gatland can rely on Dyer for real pace in his backline. The manager has options on the wing with Josh Adams and Alex Cuthbert lurking, but the Dragon is a replacement more like Rees-Zammit.
Wales will inevitably improve under Gatland as he uses his vast knowledge of rugby in the country to steady the ship and move up the table. The squad looks good and there is a plethora of talent in most positions, with the flank being by far the strongest. Their tight five is probably the most pressured area on the team, and if Gatland can get that area fired, everyone else will benefit greatly.
Wales have brilliant halfbacks and some really fantastic runners outside them so it will be fascinating to see how Gatland chooses to elevate his attack. They have three away games out of five which isn’t ideal, and Italy could prove to be a threatening prospect as Kieran Crowley’s side have a different kind of punch at the moment. However, Gatland will enjoy playing in France ahead of this year’s World Cup.
Several players were part of Gatland’s 2019 World Cup squad and will be used to how he operates. Meanwhile, the rest of the squad will be lifted by the arrival of a new manager, as is often the case in sport. Ultimately, there is the unknown of how quickly the manager can field stars for Wales. With Ireland and France ahead of everyone else in the competition, third place is truly a battle between England and Wales, both with new managers. We expect Gatland’s experience to prevail over the beginning of the Steve Borthwick era. Third place.
Saturday 4 February – Ireland (Principality Stadium)
Saturday 11 February – Scotland (Murrayfield Stadium)
Saturday 25 February – England (Principality Stadium)
Saturday 11 March – Italy (Olympic Stadium)
Saturday 18 March – France (Stade de France)
READ MORE: Six Nations preview: Italy prepares for another Wooden Spoon final
The article Preview Six Nations: Warren Gatland returns to take Wales to third place first appeared on Planetrugby.com.