Decimated by injuries, Wales are hoping they can harness the European momentum of Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.
Warren Gatland raised a few eyebrows when he declared Wales as favourites to lift the Six Nations title. It may well be that his reasoning is rooted in the European form of the regions.
Scarlets are the first Welsh team to progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup in six seasons. Ospreys narrowly missed out on joining them. And Cardiff have advanced to the final eight of the Challenge Cup.
The coach and Welsh rugby public are hoping the national side can harness this energy, and if Wales can beat Scotland in the opener and recover players from an injury list that makes for alarming reading, they may well grow into the tournament.
- Six Nations since 2000: Four-time winners (2005, 2008, 2012, 2013)
- Overall: 26 titles outright (1893, 1900, 1905, 1908, 1909, 1911, 1922, 1931, 1936, 1952, 1956, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1971, 1975, 1976, 1978, 1979, 1994, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013).
- Scotland – Principality Stadium – Saturday, February 3 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- England – Twickenham – Saturday, February 10 – 4.45pm (GMT)
- Ireland – Aviva Stadium – Saturday, February 24 – 2.15pm (GMT)
- Italy – Principality Stadium – Sunday, March 11 – 3pm (GMT)
- France – Principality Stadium – Saturday, March 17 – 5pm (GMT)
Despite healthy representation on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in the summer, Wales’ Six Nations showing last year was a disappointing one.
Their five fixtures yielded just two victories – away in Italy and at home to Ireland – which manifested in a fifth-place finish in the table.
Tight losses at home to England and away to France could have gone either way, but Wales failed to close out winning positions, while their defeat to Scotland at Murrayfield was their most disappointing display of the championship by a distance.
The success of the regions in Europe has been cited by fans as grounds for optimism. Scarlets are the first Welsh team in six years to qualify for the knockout stages of Europe’s premier club competition, while Cardiff are also through to the quarter-finals of the Challenge Cup.
Warren Gatland included 13 Scarlets players in his initial squad selection and will be hoping the form and cohesion shown by the regions will transfer.
There is also a feeling that some of Wales’ younger players are poised to have big performances. At the Six Nations’ launch in London, Scotland captain John Barclay picked his Scarlets’ team-mate James Davies as one of the players to watch – even though he’s yet to be capped.
The current unavailability of key players like Jonathan Davies, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Biggar, Rhys Priestland, Liam Williams, Sam Warburton, Rhys Webb, Jake Ball, Dan Lydiate and George North is a big concern ahead of this campaign.
How soon some from this list can return to action and how Wales will cope with the loss of players like Rhys Webb for the entire campaign is the biggest challenge facing Warren Gatland and his squad.
Because of the growing injury list and the necessary inclusion of emerging players, there’s something of a new-look feel to this Wales team.
Because of the injuries to Biggar and Priestland, Wales will start with either Cardiff’s Gareth Anscombe or Scarlets’ Rhys Patchell at fly-half against Scotland, in what will be a debut Six Nations start for either.
Fans may be hoping the team will revert to a more recognisable selection as the tournament progresses and Wales start to recover players currently waiting to return from sick-bay.
Alun Wyn Jones. The loss last week of Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb was another heavy blow for Wales, who will look to their lock and captain Alun Wyn Jones for leadership.
Jones is totemic and part of a front-five with the capacity to cause Scotland real problems when they visit the Principality Stadium.
Wales’ 38-man squad for the 2018 Six Nations:
BACKS (17) –
Back-Three: Josh Adams (Worcester Warriors), Hallam Amos (Dragons), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), Steff Evans (Scarlets), Leigh Halfpenny (Scarlets), George North (Northampton Saints), Liam Williams (Saracens).
Centre: Hadleigh Parkes (Scarlets), Owen Watkin (Ospreys), Owen Williams (Gloucester), Scott Williams (Scarlets)
Fly-half: Gareth Anscombe (Cardiff Blues), Rhys Patchell (Scarlets), Dan Biggar (Ospreys)
Scrum-half: Aled Davies (Scarlets), Gareth Davies (Scarlets), Tomos Williams (Cardiff Blues)
FORWARDS (21) –
Hooker: Scott Baldwin (Ospreys), Elliot Dee (Dragons), Ken Owens (Scarlets)
Prop: Rob Evans (Scarlets), Wyn Jones (Scarlets), Nicky Smith (Ospreys), Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Dillon Lewis (Cardiff Blues)
Second Row: Adam Beard (Ospreys), Bradley Davies (Ospreys), Seb Davies (Cardiff Blues), Cory Hill (Dragons), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys, c)
Back-row: James Davies (Scarlets), Taulupe Faletau (Bath), Ellis Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ross Moriarty (Gloucester), Josh Navidi (Cardiff Blues), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys).