The Winner Takes It All: Warren Gatland sets iron sights on Wales swansong
So Warren Gatland has announced the squad for what will be his final Six Nations with Wales. It’s a tournament that clearly means a lot to Wales’ most successful manager, and his decision to go for experience over the temptation to look at a few more new faces prior to the World Cup in Japan shows just how much he’d love to make his spring swansong a victorious one.
The Winner Takes It All
There are no bolters, no real surprises and no risks, just a solid core of players who know how to win. November’s big surprise, Jonah Holmes, is the closest Wales have to an uncapped player, having only the one game under his belt. Next is Thomas Young with just two caps.
It’s clear that Gatland and his team value victory in this tournament, or at least psychologically important victories over Wales’s fiercest Northern Hemisphere rivals, ahead of experimentation for the two months ahead. And in something of a rarity in Welsh rugby, I don’t think you’ll find many who disagree with the coach on that particular point.
But victory in this tournament will not come easily. The mighty Irish are, deservedly, overwhelming favourites, and few would bet against them completing back-to-back Grand Slams; the sign of a truly great side. However, they do have to travel to Cardiff, and Wales have once again made themselves very difficult to beat in their own capital – something that they will be relying on when trying to beat England in the Six Nations for the first time since 2013.
Wales’s away fixtures are, on paper at least, slightly less daunting. A first round trip to Paris is never easy, although the fact that France had a distinctly average autumn, capped off by a calamitous defeat to Fiji, will give hope to the travelling Welsh contingent. The biggest test on the road is likely to be Scotland, who are now harder to beat at home than William Wallace and Rob Roy in their salad days. However, Wales have a decent record against the Scots in recent years, and will travel to Edinburgh with a healthy respect for their opponents, but no fear.
Wales’s key player
Only the dead know the end of the Welsh number 10 debate, and the lack of a settled starter in the position means it’s once more a hot topic in this World Cup year. Gareth Anscombe finally looks to be in the driving seat, having ousted Dan Biggar for the autumn campaign, and it looks likely that if he stays fit, he’ll be the man to try and get Wales’s backline moving this spring.
It’s been a roundabout journey for the man who joined the Cardiff Blues back in 2014 amid talk of being ‘fast-tracked’ into the Welsh set up. A lengthy acclimatisation period and bad luck with injuries have made rather a mockery of the fast-track tag, but he’s finally claimed the starting jersey and will determined to make it his own.
His form for Cardiff has been very good this season, although admittedly some of his more eye-catching moments have come at full-back. He is undoubtedly a more creative and rounded 10 than Dan Biggar, and his range of passing and running threat should give the three-quarters more attacking opportunities. But he’s still fairly inexperienced at this level, and this will be the first time he’s been given so much responsibility for a whole tournament. Whether he sinks or swims will go a long way to determining where Wales finish the campaign.
While no Welsh player will make their debut this Six Nations, Thomas Young may play a test on Welsh soil for the first time. While his chances of starting a game remain average, you get the feeling that if he does somehow get a chance to shine, he’ll be very hard to drop. There’s no doubt that on talent alone, he would have many more than just the two games under his belt, and many Welsh heads nodded when his coach and father, Dai Young, described him as “an international rugby player not playing international rugby”.
Wales do have a ridiculous number of talented back rowers, but they also have a very high attrition rate there. It’s not inconceivable they will lose at least one flanker to injury in the first round or two. If this happens, it’s not too late for Thomas Young to stake a serious claim to a World Cup place.
One to watch
Cory Hill has very quickly made a name for himself among the Welsh faithful, and this tournament will be the most important yet for his development. He will have been very disappointed to lose his starting place to Adam Beard in the autumn, and will be desperate to win it back. But even if he doesn’t, his explosive cameos against Australia and South Africa showed what an impact he can have at any stage in a game.
Wales have long been looking for a successor to Alun Wyn Jones, and in Hill they have the closest they have come yet. Whether starting or from the bench, expect Hill to put in some eye-catching displays in some big matches. If his meteoric rise continues apace, immortality awaits for the young man.
Gatland will want to bow out of this tournament in the best way possible, but he may ultimately have to make do with second best. Despite playing both Ireland and England at home, it may be a little optimistic to predict a clean sweep this year. Ireland will probably win the tournament, but I fully expect Wales to beat England and finish a good second.