Stephen Jones in bullish form as he stresses Welsh strengths

Wales backs coach confident defending champions will not lack for quality against Ireland

True to type, not many saw Wales as likely Six Nations champions last year. They were fourth favourites, yet came within the last play of their last game of winning a Grand Slam, and are fourth favourites again this year.

That they caused a surprise last season was in large part due to a potent attack which scored 20 tries and 164 points, eight tries more than Ireland and both tournament records for Wales.

"If it was a record last year that's quite a good marker in fairness," said backs coach Stephen Jones when asked if there would be more innovation this year, and seemingly unaware of the landmark.

“From an attacking perspective we have to be smart and to do that, we have to share responsibility. We have to be able to play different styles and recognise space. It’s a collective responsibility. We have to evolve and have more strings to our bow. We can’t rest on our laurels. We need to improve every time we take to the pitch and have to evolve as a team each game.”

Ireland have been more adept than most at shutting down the Welsh attack. Prior to the defeat in Cardiff 12 months ago, Ireland restricted Wales to five tries in four successive wins, and even last year Wales were limited to two tries for the only time in the Six Nations, and that was playing against 14 men for almost 70 minutes.

“It’s exciting, isn’t it? They have an excellent defence, very well coached, which will try to affect our speed of ball and they have had a lot of joy in the past,” admitted Jones.

“From our perspective, it’s what do we need to do to get our house in order. It’s making sure that our setup is good, our speed into position is good, our role knowledge is good, that our players are excited to get onto the ball.

“We have our structures and it’s about implementing them. I believe, if we deliver on those, we can get a reward. Look at the wealth of talent we have in this group. It’s about maximising what we have, getting our best players on the ball as often as we can.”

Reigning champions

Wales have been ravaged by injuries to a clutch of veteran Test players who formed a part of last season's title charge, including Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi, Taulupe Faletau and George North, but buoyed by the Welsh squad's preparations, Jones is also relishing their first outing as reigning champions against Ireland.

“I like how hard we’re working as a group. I love our attitude and desire to improve. I’m conscious of the fact that first up we’re out in Ireland against a team we respect hugely as a coaching group. This is brilliant, isn’t it? This is why we play the game – Dublin, a 60,000 sell-out with crowds back in. This is where you want to be as a player and coach. We have faith in our game and style of play and it’s about enjoying the battle.”

Cardiff centre Willis Halaholo has also emerged as a doubt due to a hamstring strain, although Jones said: "Thankfully, he's ticking all the boxes and it looks like he'll be available for selection. That's great because we know Willis, with ball in hand, causes teams a lot of problems."

Flanker Ross Moriarty is also available for selection after playing 70 minutes of his comeback match for the Dragons last weekend, his first outing since the opening November loss against the All Blacks.