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.
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.
“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.
One of Europe’s most intriguing battles will be staged in Dublin on the opening weekend as the reigning and deposed champions collide in a contest that will shape the title race and beyond.
Win, and the promise shown by England during the autumn will morph into genuine belief they can lift the Webb Ellis Cup. Lose, and they will head for Japan as third favourites for global supremacy – at best.
The implications of defeat at the Aviva Stadium are profound, leaving Jones to narrow his focus.
“We are excited about the opportunity ahead of us. Obviously it is a World Cup year so that is always at the back of your mind,” Jones said.
“We want to be the best team in the world on November 2 at approximately 9.45pm (the date of the World Cup final). That’s the only time that interests us.
“But clearly our focus is on beating Ireland. It’s the first game of the Six Nations which is the most prestigious tournament in the northern hemisphere.
“There are twists and twirls in the Six Nations as we have seen before, so all we have to focus on is beating Ireland.”
England are second favourites to win a third European crown under their Australian head coach but understand the demands of a trip to Dublin after seeing their 2017 Grand Slam quest crumble in the Irish capital at the final hurdle.
Jones is convinced his men can reverse a run of two successive defeats to Joe Schmidt’s team, however.
“We want to make sure we put our best foot forward and I think the squad we have is very strong and is very capable of beating Ireland,” Jones said.
“We have a good team, good players and we have a good philosophy about how we want to play.
“The most important thing for us going forward apart from having our best players healthy is that we are developing good clarity about how we want to play. We understand the strengths of our game.
“We understand how we can maximise those strengths and look for more opportunities to be more adaptable.
“We probably went away from that a little bit and that was my fault. I was pushing ahead to doing things we wanted to do to be the best team in the world.
“We have got a clear picture of what we can do, we are not trying to copy anyone else in the world. We are trying to be England and we want to play the way we want to play.
“We know that if we can play like that really well, we can beat any team in the world.”
Copy provided by Press Association Sports
The 2019 Six Nations takes on greater importance with this autumn’s World Cup rapidly approaching.
The tournament begins on February 1 with Ireland favourites to retain their crown, but England, Wales and even perhaps Scotland in the mix.
Here Press Association Sport examines five talking points heading into the tournament.
Ireland’s to lose
Acclaimed the best team in the world by England head coach Eddie Jones, Ireland rightly enter the Six Nations as favourites with another Grand Slam in their sights.
In Joe Schmidt they have probably rugby’s finest coach and in Johnny Sexton the reigning world player of the year, but their whole squad is stocked with talent.
How they deal with expectation will be crucial, as will a schedule book-ended by showdowns with title rivals England and Wales, but they are unquestionably in the driving seat.
Farrell under the spotlight
Owen Farrell alone will lead England against Ireland and Italy, at which point co-captain Dylan Hartley could return from a knee injury for the round-three clash with Wales.
It is a key tournament in the development of the outstanding Saracens playmaker, whose shoulder-led, swinging-arm tackle technique somehow escaped censure during the autumn.
As skipper he must also learn to soften his communication with officials – a point highlighted against Sale recently when his confrontational manner earned a reprimand from referee Matthew Carley.
Angus Gardner admitted he should have penalised Farrell for his ugly tackle against South Africa and Jaco Peyper also spared the Lions fly-half sanction when Australia visited Twickenham three weeks later.
The incidents are reflective of the inconsistency seen from officials, who are now operating under tremendous pressure amid a World Rugby-enforced crackdown on dangerous hits designed to enhance player welfare.
What constitutes a dangerous hit warranting a yellow or red card is still being debated and it is only a matter of time before a high-stakes game is decided by a controversial refereeing decision of this kind.
If Wales beat France….
Warren Gatland has made the bold prediction that if France can be toppled in Paris on February 1 then Wales have a “great chance” of winning the Six Nations, adding “we’re in as good a position as anybody”.
Wales are on a run of nine successive wins and could overhaul the national record of 11 in what will be Gatland’s last Six Nations as their head coach.
The New Zealander is right to be bullish and with attention focused on Ireland and England, his team can glide under the radar – a tactic which could also serve them well at the World Cup.
France’s malaise is an ongoing concern and there is no evidence they will arrest their slump any time soon. Indeed, their last match was a 21-14 home defeat to Fiji which was great for Pacific islands rugby but continued the sense of despair across the Channel where the national team continues to suffer from the club game’s reliance on overseas players.
Rugby is better for a competitive French team and cannot afford to see one of its superpowers remain on the periphery.