Ireland game crucial, says Rees
Rugby:Former Wales captain Matthew Rees has played in some big Test matches against Ireland — and this season’s Six Nations opener is high on the scale. As is the case with Declan Kidney's men, Wales’ campaign could stand or fall on events at the Millennium Stadium in 11 days’ time.
Most pundits will make Ireland favourites to win, given their demolition of Argentina last time out. Wales, in contrast, have not beaten another Test-playing nation since last season’s Six Nations.
On that occasion, Wales saw off France to secure a third Six Nations title and Grand Slam in eight years, which came less than six months after they reached the World Cup semi-finals. But things subsequently developed into a tale of woe, with Wales suffering seven successive defeats that included rare triumphs in Cardiff for Argentina and Samoa.
It is against that back-drop that Wales face a demanding first week of the Six Nations, with a trip to Paris following just seven days after they host Ireland.
“With three successive games on the road — France, Italy and Scotland — it underlines how important that first game is at home to Ireland,” hooker Rees said. “The most important thing for us is we make sure we learn from what happened in the autumn. We’ve got some new faces (five uncapped players) involved in the squad, and for us it is a fresh challenge. There is a lot of competition for places, and hopefully that will bring the best out of the players.
“We know how disappointing we were in the autumn series with four losses, but that is all in the past now and we’ve got to make sure we learn from that. It is a tough Six Nations with three games on the road after the first one at home. We all know the first game up is the most important one in terms of getting momentum and confidence leading into the rest of the campaign.”
Rees (32) faces a major battle for the number two jersey with Ospreys forward Richard Hibbard, yet his appetite remains as healthy as it was when he first broke through into the international game almost eight years ago.
“To be part of any Wales squad is a huge honour, and I treat this like my first one,” he added. “It’s a massive Six Nations, and in terms of defending the title as well, and the Lions tour at the end of it. It’s huge for all the nations. We won it last year and we know that every team we play against will be coming at us. From our point of view, we’ve got a great squad with some new players coming in, and we are all looking forward to that first game against Ireland.”
Rob Howley will take charge of Wales’ Six Nations campaign after assuming interim head coach duties while Warren Gatland concentrates full-time on his British and Irish Lions remit for the three-Test Australia mission later this year. And although results did not go for Howley when he previously filled the role — last summer’s Australia tour and then the opening two autumn Tests this term — 57 times-capped Rees has no doubt that he fits the bill.
“Rob has huge respect from the players and the coaches involved. I thought he did a great job in the autumn, although results didn’t go our way,” Rees said. “Rob is an experienced coach, and there is the strength of Robin (McBryde),
Shaun (Edwards) and Neil (Jenkins) with him. Rob has got the same strengths as Warren as a coach, and it is great for us to have him. The important thing for us is not to worry too much about the opposition, but making sure we get our own house in order and ensure we prepare well for Ireland. We know how good a team they are. They have got a lot of experienced players in their squad.”
McBryde says Wales are adopting a “glass half-full” mentality towards injury issues despite Rhys Priestland, Alun-Wyn Jones, Bradley Davies, Luke Charteris and Dan Lydiate being ruled out of the game.
They are hoping for positive news about Ospreys forwards Richard Hibbard (shoulder), Ian Evans (knee) and Ryan Jones (thumb) before the competition starts.
“Ryan was seeing a specialist (yesterday), and he is pretty positive,” Wales forwards coach McBryde said. “It is a waiting game, and no-one can ask the physiotherapists more than the coaches as to who will be well. Next week, we will have to make some calls in order to give the team the best possible opportunity in the first game. That applies to Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard. The glass is half-full, and until anything happens to the contrary we hope everyone will be fit.”