Six Nations 2021: A bluffer’s guide to Wales

John O’Sullivan takes a look at Ireland’s opponents ahead of Sunday’s opener

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has seen his team struggle since taking over the job. Photo: Robbie Stephenson/Inpho

Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has seen his team struggle since taking over the job. Photo: Robbie Stephenson/Inpho

 

When will Welsh rugby get the message when it comes to the English rugby clubs?

Well they still desperately want to be invited to join the English Premiership. It would be the perfect panacea, a return to the halcyon days of the great Anglo-Welsh rivalries, packed stadiums, bringing in more money than Croesus managed to squirrel away back in the day and would get them out of that pesky Pro12/14/16 league, allowing the Welsh franchises to rise Phoenix-like and reclaim their former eminence. Unfortunately there’s no chance of the Welsh clubs hearing the word Croeso from their English brethren.

No not that fantasy, isn’t there a more recent knockback?

Yes, the English clubs won’t allow their Welsh internationals to remain in the national squad bubble for the duration of the Six Nations tournament. They expect them to return in fallow weeks or on the Thursday of a week in which they are not involved in the matchday 23. It centres on six players, Tomas Francis (Exeter Chiefs), Will Rowlands (Wasps), Taulupe Faletau (Bath), Dan Biggar (Northampton Saints), Callum Sheedy (Bristol Bears) and Louis Rees-Zammit (Gloucester).

So where do Wales stand going into the tournament?

The 2019 Grand Slam and World Cup semi-final appearance in the last year of Warren Gatland’s reign seems a distant memory. His successor Wayne Pivac has won three of 10 test matches since, undermined by injuries to key players and weighed down by the failure to translate the slick, expansive and successful rugby of his days at the Scarlets to the national side. They should be more competitive based on returning players and better preparation.

So the natives are restless?

Yes, there’s been criticism from a variety of sources and Pivac is under pressure especially following a number of high profile departures in the backroom team. Defence coach Byron Hayward stepped down before the Autumn Nations Cup game against Ireland while former players Ryan Jones (performance director) and Sam Warburton (breakdown and defence coach) also departed with the latter replaced by another ex-player in prop Gethin Jenkins.

Are there any silver linings?

Captain and talisman Alun Wyn Jones looks like shaking off a knee injury in time to lead the side against Ireland at the Principality stadium on Sunday while there is largely positive news on knocks to three or four other players. They need experienced players like Jones, Ken Owens, Taulupe Faletau, Justin Tipuric, George North, Jonathan Davies, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny to produce their best and in doing so provide direction.

What about the younger or newer players to international rugby?

It’ll be interesting to see if firecracker Louis Rees-Zammit, Will Rowlands, Johnny Williams and Nick Tompkins can force their way into the matchday 23. The results of the Welsh team are never reliant on how their clubs are faring as they have proved time and again but there has been some positivity from recent performances by Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys. Wales possess power and flair and properly calibrated are dangerous opponents.

How will an empty Principality stadium impact on their mindset?

All the teams will miss a home crowd and benefit to a degree when playing away but the hywl between players and supporters in Cardiff creates a special atmosphere. The WRU may decide to pipe in some singing and crowd noise but that might be more eerie than galvanising. Jones summed it up thus: “To be in the middle of the pitch with 75,000 Welsh fans is a very special place. Will we miss them? ‘Yes.’ Are they the best in the world? ‘Most definitely.’”

Suppose nobody cares about the roof now?

It will be closed apparently, something Wales want. There are areas other than the roof they can open to circulate fresh air. Ireland have to agree but head coach Andy Farrell said: “We’re playing them first game up. I think the roof will be closed.”

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