Warburton believes in confident camp
Rugby:Captain Sam Warburton believes Wales will take “massive confidence” from their status as reigning Six Nations champions when they aim to end a demoralising losing run tomorrow.
Wales have not beaten another Test-playing country since defeating France to secure last season’s Six Nations title and a third Grand Slam in eight years.
Losses against Australia (four times), New Zealand, Argentina and Samoa mean that Wales are experiencing their most barren run for nine years and go into this season’s tournament as fourth favourites behind France, England and Ireland.
Ireland are first up at the Millennium Stadium, a reversal of last year’s opening fixture in Dublin when Wales prevailed thanks to full-back Leigh Halfpenny’s late penalty strike.
Despite a lengthy injury list that currently includes the likes of Ryan Jones, Rhys Priestland, Richard Hibbard, Alun-Wyn Jones, Luke Charteris and Bradley Davies — plus head coach Warren Gatland’s absence due to British and Irish Lions commitments - Warburton remains in upbeat mood.
“We were not favourites last year, but as players you ignore it,” he said. “No-one really knows what is going to happen until the first weekend of rugby. After it, we will have a much better idea of how teams are shaping up. We will take massive confidence from going into the game as defending Grand Slam champions. Regardless of what has happened since then, you cannot take that away from us.
“It was a great achievement and a lot of the boys from last year are here and know what it takes. The young players can let the negatives go over their heads and not affect them. It is a very confident camp, and I am always the optimist.”
Wales, despite their reputation as a free-scoring team with an emphasis on tries, managed just three touchdowns in four games during this season’s autumn series. But with firepower like Halfpenny, George North and Alex Cuthbert in their ranks, it will be a major surprise if Wales do not look to put width on the ball.
“The intention is to go for it in this championship,” said Wales’ interim head coach Rob Howley. "The speed of ball will depend on the conditions, but the focus of our game is ball in hand and to put them (Ireland) under pressure with our passing game. We expect an aerial battle as well. There will be times when all bets are off and you need to put the ball in the air, and it is getting those in-game decisions right.”
Key to Welsh victory aspirations will be outhalf Dan Biggar, who wins his 12th cap tomorrow but makes a first Six Nations appearance in more than four years after he first played Test rugby.
Howley, who preferred Biggar to James Hook as replacement for the absent Priestland, added: “Dan has matured a lot over the last 12 months and he has been knocking on the door continually. We have given him a lot of feedback in terms of his game management, running threat and kicking game, and from his perspective it is a matter of turning up confident on Saturday and going out and playing the game as he sees it.
“We have a pretty potent back-line, and the management is about when to bring them in and when to play for position and when to run. You want your half-backs to bring out the best in the players around them, and Dan will do that.”
Wales completed their preparations at the Millennium Stadium today, with a clean bill of health reported among the squad by forwards coach Robin McBryde.
“That stat (seven defeats) has been thrown at us quite a bit, and we are all feeling it” he said. “It is a fine line between failure and success at international level. Unfortunately, we’ve fallen on the wrong side. It is a bit of backs against the wall, and everyone knows how important the opening game of a Six Nations is.”
And defence coach Shaun Edwards underlined the threat Ireland could pose, having scored more points than any other team in last season’s tournament and now lifted by returning star backs Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney, who both missed the autumn games through injury.
“Ireland had the best offence in last year’s Six Nations, and some of the rugby they played against Argentina in the autumn was breathtaking,” Edwards said. “We know we are going to be massively challenged defensively. They have a lot of creative players, and we’ve got to make sure we don’t give them the kind of space Argentina did.
“If you give them that kind of space, they will punish you.”