The 6 Nations. It has its critics; it’s an outdated concept, the format is wrong, the quality is poor, yet for all its faults there is no denying the magic of this tournament.
There is something special in the air when the banter and the nerves start building. Captains are chosen, teams are announced and all of a sudden you realise that one of the greatest rugby tournaments around is just days from starting.
For Wales, the 6 Nations has been almost a permanent roller coaster ride. Finishing top and Grand Slam champions one year, only to wallow in the bottom half of the table the next. Consistency is never a word you would associate with Wales, yet it is one they will be desperately striving for in this year’s tournament.
First up they face Ireland. An Ireland still smarting from last years last minute loss, still smarting from the sound beating they received in the rugby world cup quarter final, still smarting that they are on their worst run against Wales for ten years.
Ireland and Wales have been evenly matched for the last few seasons and the team Ireland have picked looks like it is set to be another nail biter in the opening game this Saturday. Despite this being a home game, Wales’ opponents will show no fear; Cardiff is often a happy hunting ground for them.
This match is also set to be one of the most decisive of the whole 6 Nations. Which ever side wins this will go on to do well. Momentum, form, confidence take from it what you will, a victory over one of your closest and fiercest rivals can make or break your tournament. If Wales win, they could end up with a great showdown in Cardiff against England on the final weekend, if they lose and with three away games on the bounce, that match against England all of a sudden takes on an uglier aspect.
In terms of rivalry, Ireland are fast becoming a close second behind England in terms of teams Wales wants to beat. Whether it be over familiarity between the players facing each other week in week out in the RaboDirect PRO 12, or down to the closeness and sometimes controversial outcomes of recent games, it is one game neither side will ever want to lose.
This 6 Nations will provide a huge test for Wales. Rob Howley will now be fully in charge. On paper, despite a second row crisis, the majority of players in Wales’ squad are equal to that and often better than all other sides in this tournament with the exception of France. On paper, they shouldn’t fear anyone.
The memory stirs however of the dismal showing in the Autumn. Of the patchy defence and near non existent attack. A warning bell tolling perhaps that if Wales don’t improve massively the gloom that has settled on Welsh rugby will spread even further.
After all, games aren’t decided on paper. It is on the pitch, out in the elements, with fifteen versus fifteen giving everything to secure that oh so important victory. Wales needs to step up. Wales need to believe in themselves. Injuries or no, they have the players to win games.
Wales’ fans expect success, some more so than others, but ultimately for this 6 Nations only one fact remains; Wales have got to deliver.