Wayne Pivac has predicted a “hotly contested” Guinness Six Nations Championship as Wales prepare to launch their title defence.
Despite winning the tournament last season, Wales go into battle as fourth favourites with the bookmakers behind France, England and Ireland.
On the surface, it is potentially a fair rating given that Wales are without several injured star players for the whole competition.
That list features captain Alun Wyn Jones, plus his fellow British and Irish Lions Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, while George North, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau only have outside chances of being involved in the competition’s latter stages.
Wales head coach Pivac is minus around 700 caps of Test match experience and his players face a tough opener away against in-form Ireland on February 5 before hosting Scotland and then tackling England at Twickenham.
Form since last year’s title triumph has proved patchy, with the highlight being an Autumn Nations Series victory over Australia, but that was preceded by losses against Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.
With Ireland and France having toppled the All Blacks in November, and England taking the scalp of world champions South Africa, Pivac accepts that a major test awaits.
“It is probably going to be a big challenge again with the advances France, England and Ireland have made,” he said.
“We are all trying to advance and grow our squads, and we are no different.
“We are hamstrung a little bit by our availability, but certainly the opportunities that presents to others and the excitement that comes with that, let’s hope that goes a long way to helping us get the performances we are after.
“With the players injured, there are about eight or nine players there with 680 Test caps. I would challenge any side to lose that amount of experience and to come out overconfident.
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) January 18, 2022
“We are confident in the squad. It is going to be a great challenge, but it’s certainly for us about starting the competition well and building, as we did last year.
“I thought the Six Nations last year was really competitive. There were a lot of tight games and a lot of good rugby played.
“All the coaches came in with a positive approach, and I don’t think it will be any different this time around.
“Coming off that autumn series with France and Ireland’s performances and England having a good win over the world champions, it is going to be hotly contested. I am sure there will be some tight scorelines.”
Wales lost on five of their last seven visits to Dublin’s Aviva Stadium, so what unfolds there could shape their whole Six Nations campaign.
Victory, and they will be flying into Scotland’s Cardiff visit seven days later, but defeat in the Irish capital could signal a long and frustrating tournament.
Pivac added: “It’s the usual cliche, but the Ireland game becomes paramount for us, getting off to a good start. We know the challenge that awaits us there, because history will tell you it is not an easy place to go.
“They control the ball for long phases, and you saw that against New Zealand in the autumn. They frustrated the New Zealand defence for long periods, and their ability to turn ball over or slow ball down means you have to be right on the money.
“If you don’t front up physically against Ireland, then it is going to be a long day at the office. We are going to have to prepare very well to perform the way we would like to.
“They are a team that can strangle you with the ball. They hold the ball for long periods of time, so your defence has got to be up to speed and you have got to take your scoring opportunities when they come.”