By Gareth James
Dan Biggar has told Wales fans to ignore the bookies and enjoy the ride as he gets set to lead the Six Nations champions in defence of their trophy.
Despite winning the tournament last year, Wales arrive at this season’s staging as only fourth favourites behind France, England and Ireland.
Wayne Pivac’s side go into the annual contest on the back of a thrilling autumn win against Australia, although injuries have hit them hard.
British and Irish Lions like Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Leigh Halfpenny, Justin Tipuric and Josh Navidi are expected to miss the whole competition, while George North and Taulupe Faletau are only considered possibilities – at best – for the latter part of it.
Wales face a testing opener against Ireland in Dublin on Saturday week, before hosting Scotland and then tackling England at Twickenham.
“It’s a really tough start,” says Northampton fly-half Biggar.
“Obviously, with the form Ireland showed in the autumn – how impressive they are – and we know how tough going to Dublin is. We haven’t had a huge amount of success there over the last few years.
“This tournament, in particular, hinges on momentum, really.
“But if you get off to a good start, then everything seems to flow, camps become a lot happier and training becomes a lot easier. For us, it is really important to get a good start.
Dan Biggar says he’ll be aiming to do his late mother proud when he captains Wales in the 2022 Six Nations 🏉 pic.twitter.com/3r6hTl4YyQ
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) January 26, 2022
“If you can pick up an away win on the first weekend, then it sets you up really nicely. We have then got Scotland at home, which we know is going to be hugely difficult as well.
“The opening couple of weekends are pivotal to how the tournament will go for you, and we are hoping we can get off to a good start and use the 10 days or so we’ve got now to give ourselves the best chance in Dublin a week on Saturday.
“From our point of view, there are lots of key experienced players missing, but that also gives an opportunity to a lot of young lads who have come into the squad to step up and really stake a claim.
“We were written off last year. We are coming into the tournament as defending champions, so there is certainly a bit of a swagger in the group.”
Jones, the most capped player in Test rugby union history, has undergone two shoulder operations since being injured during Wales’ Autumn Nations Series opener against New Zealand in October.
He also had shoulder issues ahead of last summer’s Lions tour to South Africa, but he defied expectation and recovered in time to captain the tourists in all three Tests.
“I don’t think any of us expected him to turn up in South Africa in the summer, and he managed to get on the plane,” adds Biggar.
“If there is anybody who has got a chance of being fit for some part of this tournament, then Al is probably the man. I wouldn’t rule it out just yet.”
Biggar, now 32, had to wait almost five years between his Wales debut in 2008 and his first Six Nations game in 2013, due to a combination of injuries and selection decisions that went against him.
Because he’s not really human, both the Ospreys and Wales have hinted today that Alun Wyn Jones could return early from his shoulder injury for the end of the Six Nations.
— Ben Coles (@bencoles_) January 26, 2022
In contrast, Marcus Smith is set to play his first Six Nations game for England in this tournament, just months after making Biggar’s fellow No.10 made international debut last summer.
The Harlequins fly-half, who has won five England caps, looks set to make a Six Nations bow when Eddie Jones’ side launch their campaign against Scotland at Murrayfield next week.
Smith, 22, already has a Gallagher Premiership title and British and Irish Lions tour in his career portfolio, and he is rated as English rugby’s most exciting prospect for years.
Biggar and Smith were Lions colleagues in South Africa last summer after Smith was summoned by head coach Warren Gatland as injury cover for Finn Russell.
“If you look at Marcus’ 12 months, you would say that he has passed everything with flying colours,” adds Biggar.
“He has had a really good 12 months and burst on to the scene. I am sure that he will just take the tournament in his stride, same as he has with the others.
“I really enjoyed my time with Marcus in the summer. I thought he was a really good bloke and willing to learn, willing to get better. He is ridiculously talented, isn’t he?
“There is no doubt this tournament is different to anything outside of a World Cup. Every game is an occasion, everyone is watching.
“Whatever comes Marcus’ way, I am sure he will deal with it as he has done in the last 12 months.”
🧊 Marcus Smith doesn’t feel pressure.
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 14, 2022
Biggar and Smith are likely to be in opposition when Wales head to Twickenham on February 26, but Biggar’s more immediate concern is navigating his country through a testing first two games that see Wales visiting Ireland and then hosting Scotland.
“If you look at every year when we come into the tournament, Ireland, England and France always start ahead of us with the bookies and the media. We are fully aware of what we’re capable of.
“There are a lot of boys in the squad now who have got that young lack of fear in terms of expectations and the pressures that are put on you when you play for Wales in the Six Nations.
“Over the last eight, nine or 10 years when we have been reasonably successful in this tournament, it has been a similar question about the (Welsh) regions not quite performing as well as they should, English and Irish clubs doing well and things like that, and we always seem to do okay.
“So we are not putting pressure on ourselves, but we are certainly not looking for any excuses.”