Six Nations

Wales eye Six Nations hat-trick

2014-01-30 17:31
Warren Gatland (Getty Images)

London - For about the 10th time in a row the Six Nations is being described as "the most open for years" as Europe's rugby elite shuffle for supremacy having suffered their usual November southern hemisphere hidings.

Wales have quickly forgotten their autumn defeats by South Africa and Australia - their eighth in a row against the Wallabies - as they focus on trying to become the first country to win the Six Nations outright three years running.

"We're all looking forward to the Six Nations - it's what we're measured on," captain Sam Warburton said last week, in a worryingly insular analysis.

The comment, admittedly a throwaway line during an on-stage interview at the tournament's launch, was reminiscent of the 1987 World Cup, when Wales were thrashed by New Zealand in the semi-finals and a leading administrator said it did not really matter because at least they had beaten the English in the quarters.

Northern hemisphere rugby has come a long way since then, and most players, coaches and administrators know that they have to strive to compete with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

But, for a few glorious weeks every spring time, those black, gold and green shirts can be put out of the mind as the oldest rivalries in the game take centre stage.

Wales get things under way at home to Italy on February 1, when they should chalk up a win to set them on their way to the hoped-for hat-trick.

Several countries have won back-to-back titles and taken a share in a third but since the introduction of points difference nobody has managed three in a row.

Warburton, on the bench on Saturday having not played since November with a shoulder injury, said the hat-trick target had been brought up as his team sat dejected in their Cardiff dressing room after their latest Australian defeat.

"Shaun Edwards (assistant coach) talked about three in a row after that Australia match," he said.

"He said to look for positives and to go away and play ourselves into the squad for the Six Nations where we would have a chance to create history."

With few injuries and a squad packed with players who helped win the title last year and grand slam in 2012, not to mention the bulk of the victorious British and Irish Lions side, Wales certainly look equipped to justify their position as narrow bookmakers' favourites.

However, few of those players are tearing up trees for their club sides at the moment and away games against England and Ireland will make it a difficult task.

England, whose dreams of a grand slam turned into a 30-3 Cardiff nightmare last year, are in the opposite position, with eight potential first-choices players out injured and coach Stuart Lancaster picking a callow backline for their tough opener away to France on Feb. 1.

Lancaster blooded seven new caps in his first game in charge against Scotland two years ago and is at the halfway point of his assault on the 2015 World Cup, with 20 games played and 20 to go.

"There's a balance to strike but I've always been reasonably confident about picking inexperienced players if I feel they are ready," he said.

England do look solidly efficient upfront however, having lost only two Six Nations games under Lancaster and have beaten France in six of their last seven meetings in the Six Nations.

France, though, cannot be as bad as they were last year when they suffered the humiliation of the wooden spoon after winning only one game and will hope the trend of them winning the championship on the last four occasions it followed a British and Irish Lions tour continues.

Philippe Saint-Andre's selection policy is likely to have a major impact on their progress, though he will rue the absence of the formidable Thierry Dusautoir, out for the whole tournament with injury.

Saint-Andre is, however, delighted to have finally got his squad the week off from domestic duty and now says there are "no more excuses".

"We know that the honeymoon is over for us as coaches, that the apprenticeship for the players has come to an end, and that we must all deliver," he said.

If Ireland play as they did against Australia in November then they could be looking at another second-last place finish but if they reproduce the form they showed in pushing New Zealand so close a week later they could win the grand slam.

"We achieved a lot of things we'd been working on with (new coach) Joe Schmidt in that game," said captain Paul O'Connell, who missed the 2013 tournament with a back injury.

"It was a shame we didn't close out that match like we should have done but that has given us some confidence for this year."

Scotland and Italy both claimed two wins each last year and were close to more, yet such is the shortage of quality players at both teams' disposal, that a repeat season should be seen as a success.

Read more on:    six nations  |  rugby
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