Tomos Williams. Pic: Simon King/Replay Images.

Wales Can Shine In Six Nations If They Don’t Freeze Under Friday Night Lights

The opening round of the Six Nations has thrown up two games that could be crucial to the destination of the trophy with Wales potential champions if they can overcome their French test though Ireland will start favourites. Geraint Powell, in his latest column for Dai Sport, reckons we will have to wait until Sunday morning to have a better idea if Warren Gatland will lead Wales to another title in his final campaign as Head Coach. 

Once every four years, the Six Nations tournament lives heavily in the shadows of another tournament – the World Cup – and this is the year on this World Cup cycle.

Yes there will be warm-up matches in August/September, but this is the last tournament rugby for the participating nations before they head to Japan.

But there is plenty at stake, as Warren Gatland and Joe Schmidt enter their final Six Nations tournament as head coaches of Wales and Ireland respectively.

A Six Nations victory does not necessarily mean a good World Cup will follow, for there is a need to successfully peak again in September/October and the environment will be radically different, but a poor Six Nations campaign does tend to leave a team low in confidence and firmly on the back foot.

As with any short five match “round robin” – home or away – tournament, both the fixture list

Will Warren Gatland be smiling come the end of his final Six Nations campaign as Wales’ Head Coach. Pic: Getty Images.

and generating initial momentum are critical.

The opening weekend is a classic example, with two matches – France v Wales in Paris and Ireland v England in Dublin – that are likely to go a long way towards deciding the tournament.

The departing Gatland will be acutely aware that Wales have not won the Six Nations since 2013 – since 2012 under his personal guidance – and also that Wales are traditionally both slow starters and not at their best on a Friday evening.

But also that, if Wales do win their opening match and get on a roll, they can be very difficult for any nation to stop them going all the way. If Wales can win away in France and Italy, then England and Ireland at home and separated only by a tricky trip to Murrayfield, the tournament looks a very different proposition to having lost in Paris on the opening night.

Wales will be missing Taulupe Faletau, an all too regular occurrence since his move from the Dragons to Bath, concussion victim Leigh Halfpenny and the unfortunate Ellis Jenkins, but otherwise they look to be in good shape and have gone unbeaten since Dublin last February.

Obviously there have been some caveats accompanying this winning run, from an Argentina team clearly no longer on the same wavelength as their soon to be departed coach to Australia and South Africa not being the forces of old, but you can only beat what is in front of you and the Welsh kick/chase defence is as good as any.

Many eyes will be on the competitiveness of the front five, especially the driving mauls both in attack and defence, against power game opponents.

France invariably have a big physical pack and will be looking for an upturn in fortunes after years of the national side underperforming despite the strength of the domestic Top 14 league. If the November defeat against the Springboks was unfortunate, the defeat against Fiji was inexcusable.

But the attention this week has been upon the selection of the highly promising and skilful Romain Ntamack in place of the man mountain that is Mathieu Bastereaud.

Leigh Halfpenny will be missing in Paris due to concussion issues. Pic: Getty Images.

Win this match and Wales might well be on a Championship roll, lose it and it could be a long old February/March.

The other match this opening weekend that is likely to have a big impact on the final placings is in Dublin, where defending title holders and Grand Slam winners Ireland, who have lost only one match – in Australia – since securing the Grand Slam in Twickenham last March, welcome England.

The Irish provinces, their talent strategically managed and concentrating in four provinces rather than dispersed across 13 clubs, have been going well in Europe. The English clubs, with the notable exception of play-off top seeds Saracens, have had a Heineken Champions Cup campaign to forget.

Non-Test club/provincial form is no guide to international form, and Ireland will need to be at their very best to get their quest for a first-ever back-to-back Grand Slam off to a winning start.

The return of Billy Vunipola and – finally – Manu Tuilagi will likely see England have more front-foot ball than in last season’s match and the battle at the breakdown and in the air is likely to be ferocious.

Any ill-discipline from Ireland and Owen Farrell will keep the English scoreboard ticking over.

Win this match, and you can’t help feeling that Ireland will have taken a significant step towards securing another title, possibly another Grand Slam, in Cardiff in March. Lose this match and those two away trips to Edinburgh and Cardiff start looking even harder.

For England, win this match and there will be three home matches and a trip to Cardiff and the title is on. Lose this one, and that trip to Cardiff on 23 February takes on an altogether different complexion and especially if Wales are on a roll.

If England can get to three wins from three, then five wins from five will be likely by the time that Italy and Scotland have visited Twickenham.

The pressure upon Eddie Jones will mount if there are away defeats in Dublin and Cardiff, but England reminded everybody of their inherent competitiveness in November.

The final match this weekend will see Scotland entertain Italy. With a poor record in Paris and a dreadful record at Twickenham, where they have not won since 1983, the likelihood is that Scotland will be focussing upon their home matches this tournament.

If Wales and/or Ireland suffer opening weekend defeats, Scotland will especially fancy their chances of making the later visit to Edinburgh a miserable one. Two or three wins will provide Scotland with a solid springboard for a good World Cup campaign later this year.

Joe Schmidt will be looking for another Grand Slam with Ireland if they see off England on Saturday in Dublin. Pic: Getty Images.

Italy will be looking for any win, with Wales, Ireland and France the visitors to Rome this season and where Italy will be most likely to secure any scalp.

Whilst I expect Scotland to beat Italy, barring any complacency and despite the more integrated approach and improving domestic landscape within Italian rugby, the other two matches are way too close to call.

It might invariably be a case of “which French team shows up”, but tonight might equally be a case of “which Welsh team shows up”? Fast out of the blocks, like they were against Scotland last season, and I would expect Wales to win. Anything less, and Wales will struggle.

The bookmakers will favour Ireland over England, defending a Grand Slam with home advantage favouring a reasonably settled and confident side and a last tournament for the popular head coach, but elite sport is often very fine margins and

I suspect Ireland will have to be at their very best to ensure a home victory.

Who will win this Six Nations?

Ask me again on Sunday morning, when the dust from this pivotal opening round has settled!

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