Wales under the radar but head into Six Nations on a high and as title contenders

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Wales have beaten South Africa twice in their 10-game run.

Wales have not won the Six Nations Championship since 2013 – but they head into this year’s tournament on a high as major title contenders.

While Ireland dominated the autumn headlines through their stunning victory over world champions New Zealand, Wales largely went under the radar.

In completing a first clean sweep of autumn victories, though, they extended their unbeaten run to nine Test matches.

Warren Gatland’s men are undefeated since losing to reigning Grand Slam champions Ireland in last season’s Six Nations, since when they have toppled South Africa (twice), Argentina (twice), Australia, Scotland, France, Italy and Tonga.

And as Gatland heads into his final Six Nations tournament as Wales boss – he steps down after the World Cup later this year – he has every reason to be upbeat about chances of silverware.

George North and Wales are in fine form.

George North and Wales are in fine form.

Wales kick off their campaign against France in Paris, returning to the scene of a controversial defeat two years ago that ended with almost 20 minutes’ added time and during which Les Bleus scored a match-winning try.

But Ireland and England both have to visit Cardiff, with Wales’ Principality Stadium clash against the Irish on March 16 already being billed in some quarters as a potential title decider.

“Our form has been strong since that loss over in Ireland,” Wales assistant coach and defence specialist Shaun Edwards said.

“The wins away from home against Argentina (in June) were confidence-building and gave us momentum which we carried on through the autumn.

“There are no warm-up games in the Six Nations. It’s straight into hostilities from the first match, which is one of the toughest fixtures in world rugby, particularly on a Friday night.

“They (France) bring size, power and quick ball, particularly with the players they’ve got coming back like Wesley Fofana.

“I watched the first 20 minutes (of the 2017 France game) again the other day, and France were very dominant.

“They had quick ball after quick ball, and it’s something I want the players to have a look at because it is what is going to hit us in the first 20 minutes.

“It’s going to be like a whirlwind, and we have to be more ready than we were then. We ended up being 10-0 down after 15 minutes in 2017, and we can’t afford that this year.

“Ireland’s toughest game last year was probably France, and this year it’s going to be an equally intense and ferocious affair when we play.

“It’s one game at a time, it’s a five-game series.

Warren Gatland will bow out as Wales boss after 12 years following this year's World Cup.

Warren Gatland will bow out as Wales boss after 12 years following this year’s World Cup.

“The good thing in the Six Nations is that you do have a rest after the first two weeks, and you can put absolutely everything into those first two games. That is what we have to do.

“That loss from two years ago still hurts. I am sure it will still hurt for a lot of the lads who played in that game.

“But we have to concentrate on what we can do, and I really want to stress to the players that we have to start better than we did in 2017.”

Gatland’s 39-man squad is minus British & Irish Lions number eight Taulupe Faletau, who has broken his arm for a second time this season, but otherwise contains almost all the players involved during a successful autumn campaign.

And while the tournament could see a delayed entry for full-back Leigh Halfpenny, who is recovering from concussion, Wales’ strength in depth is probably more evident now than at any time during Gatland’s 12-year reign.

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