All you need to know about Wales ahead of the Six Nations

We brought you our preview of Philippe Saint-André’s France side yesterday, but now we turn our attention to an even fiercer rival.

The clash between Ireland and Wales in Dublin on the 8th of February promises to be one of the most entertaining and closely-fought fixtures of this year’s tournament. With Warren Gatland’s side set to welcome Italy to the Millenium Stadium on the opening weekend, they should arrive with confidence.

Gatland is the steady hand at the tiller, with the contract he signed in December set to see him remain with Wales until after the 2019 World Cup. While some may not be fans of the style of play the Kiwi favours, his record is undeniably impressive.

Gatland’s three-year spell in charge of Ireland between 1998 and 2001 ended acrimoniously, but there were signs of progress for the national team. Three Premiership titles, a Heineken Cup, Anglo-Welsh Cup and Parker Pen trophy followed with Wasps, before a NPC [now the ITM Cup] success with Waikato.

Two Grand Slams with Wales, a World Cup semi-final and a victorious Lions tour have been achieved under Gatland’s intelligent coaching; this is a man who wins more often than not. He has taken the physical potential of this Welsh group and turned it into an effective machine.

How’s the form boys?

Wales’ November Test series was something of a mixed bag. They opened with a 24-15 defeat to South Africa, where they were just out muscled at key times. A facile win over Argentina followed, before a number of fringe players were given game time in a 17-7 victory over Tonga.

Beating Australia was the main target, but Gatland’s men slipped to a 30-26 loss in what was one of the most thrilling international games last year. There were many positives for Wales in defeat, and overall seven wins from 11 games in 2013 provided a solid record.

Can off-the-pitch matters be ignored?

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Alun-Wyn Jones has signed a new deal with the Ospreys. ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan.

Most certainly. Welsh rugby is in a mess presently, with the regions and WRU [Welsh Rugby Union] still at loggerheads but Gatland should have little problem in focusing his men on the task at hand; securing an historic third Six nations title in a row.

The New Zealander has gone for continuity with this squad selection this spring, and why wouldn’t he? For this group of Welshmen, pulling on the red jersey means everything. Stuart Lancaster has been going about attempting to build an identity for his England side over the past year or so, but Gatland already possesses men who bleed red [literally and metaphorically].

Captain Sam Warburton’s future remains in the balance, but Alun-Wyn Jones has extended his time at the Ospreys. Leigh Halfpenny is in for plenty of slagging after signing for Toulon.

What’s their weak point?

The Wallabies demonstrated that there are a couple of soft edges to Wales’ aggressive defence, as they exposed George North twice for tries in Cardiff. That was achieved through some remarkable handling, but Ewen McKenzie’s men showed that it is possible to go around the rush.

Alternatively, there is scope for forcing the Welsh to repeatedly turn to retrieve kicks. Like the above, accuracy is absolutely crucial; kick loosely to North and Alex Cuthbert and five-point punishment awaits. Still, the latter is a particularly uncomfortable defender and can be exposed.

In terms of the forwards, Cian Healy showed at the RDS that he can beat Adam Jones in the scrummaging stakes, although writing the 32-year-old off would be foolish.

Who’ll be kicking at goal?

One of the most reliable place-kickers in the world, that’s who. Halfpenny’s extreme levels of dedication have led to him becoming a world-class player from the tee and conceding penalties against the Welsh inside your own half is a dangerous game.

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Halfpenny is lethal from the tee. ©INPHO/James Crombie.

The 25-year-old will take over the place-kicking duties from Jonny Wilkinson at Toulon next season, a man whose longevity of accuracy Halfpenny is building towards. The Blues fullback’s relentless regime of practice began at the age of 12 at hometown club Gorseinon RFC, where his granddad would religiously kick balls back out to Halfpenny from behind the posts.

This is a man who practices his goal-kicking on Christmas Day; opposition teams will need to be smart in conceding penalties.

The key man is…

While he will be highly dependent on other to get the ball into his hands, George North’s form has been ominously building as the Six Nations approaches. The 21-year-old is a physical outlier, whose compact upper body and long, muscular legs allow him to excel when in possession.

He’s just so hard to tackle; going low is no guarantee with the Northampton winger. While there are certainly elements of awareness and understanding that North can improve upon, it is frightening to think that he is already such an effective attacking presence at this age.

Toby Faletau is a phenomenally good rugby player too.

Who’s missing through injury?

Jonathan Davies is a big loss for the Welsh, as his form in the last year has been very strong. Destined for Clermont next season, the 25-year-old has developed into quite a complete centre, capable of carrying directly, running intelligent lines and deploying powerful contact skills.

Concerns remain over his passing accuracy and range, but there have also been signs that Davies’ diligent work on the training pitch is paying off in that regard. He should be back later in the tournament. Warburton is recovering from a shoulder injury, but looks likely to be ready for the Italy clash.

Lock Ian Evans’ ban for his ugly use of the boot on Mike McCarthy’s head has shorn Gatland’s side of an important cornerstone, while Gethin Jenkins has been carrying a knee injury recently.

Likely starting XV

L Halfpenny; A Cuthbert, S Williams, J Roberts, G North; D Biggar/R Priestland, M Phillips; G Jenkins/R Bevington, R Hibbard, A Jones; AW Jones, A Coombs/L Charteris; D Lydiate, S Warburton, T Faletau.

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