In a short, intense tournament like the Six Nations, a defeat in the opening round usually signals the death-knell for a team’s chances of going on to lift the trophy.
On only three occasions has a team lost their first match yet claimed the ultimate prize – France in 2006, Wales in 2013 and England in 2020.
Wayne Pivac’s Wales kicked-off last season’s triumphant campaign with a 21-16 home win against 14-man Ireland and the two sides meet again on the first Saturday of this year’s Championship in what is bound to be another equally hard-fought encounter.
“Obviously to win the tournament last year, it was such an exciting campaign the way it built from Round 1 through to the final weekend,” said the New Zealander who is about to embark on his third Championship as Wales coach.
“Momentum is everything. If you look at last year’s competition, we got that all-important win over Ireland, a tough opponent in Round 1 and then there was the Scotland game away.
“Those two games were so important to us. We got that momentum, we got the points on the board, teams were chasing us and you grow in confidence with the time together in camp.
“You expect things to improve and last year they did. We came out playing some really, really good rugby and probably some of our best rugby in our only defeat in France.
“Time together is vital and momentum is everything in this tournament. Ireland, Dublin away needless to say is a massive occasion for us and one we’re going to prepare well for. We’ll look to play some good rugby like we did in the last campaign. Playing that way paid dividends for us and we’re going to try and build on those performances from last season.”
NEVER SAY NEVER
Wales will begin the Six Nations missing big-name players like Alun Wyn Jones, George North and Justin Tipuric.
Jones is fighting his way back to fitness from a second shoulder operation and is facing a race against time to appear in the Six Nations and win an historic 150th cap for his country.
“I probably wouldn’t enter into the conversation if it was anyone else to be quite honest but the guy has broken so many records,” said Pivac about the second-row’s chances of a Lazarus-like return.
“I honestly say that I would never say never but it’ll be a longshot, let’s just say that, but Alun Wyn is working incredibly hard behind the scenes to get himself in the best shape possible to be as ready as quickly as he can for Ospreys or Wales.”
Dan Biggar has replaced Jones as Wales’ captain for Six Nations 2022, and England will need a new captain too, following the news that Owen Farrell has been ruled out for the duration of the Championship with an ankle injury.
Tom Curry, one of the senior leaders in the England squad, stepped forward to take on media duties in Farrell’s absence and is a contender to get the armband over the next seven weeks.
The Sale Sharks flanker said that last year’s fifth-place finish was consigned to history, with England looking to build on their Autumn Nations Cup victory against world champions South Africa.
“We are a different team from what we were a year ago – not just players but the way we play. We know what we need to do, moving forward and how we were with the Autumn Nations Series and how it’s been, it’s a different challenge this year.
“We’re probably a bit more attacking, we’re more ‘at teams’ which is big for us and that’s when we play our best rugby. That’s the big difference, especially from what we showed in the Autumn.”
GALTHIÉ’S 20:20 VISION
Pre-tournament favourites France know they need to deliver a first Six Nations title since 2010 at some point between now and Rugby World Cup 2023, if they are to be taken seriously as contenders to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.
Head coach Fabien Galthié realises the two objectives are intertwined to a degree but insisted that the Six Nations would be their focal point in the here and the now.
“For the last two years we have, of course, been aware that Rugby World Cup 2023 will be held in France and this objective has been clearly visible on our roadmap. Our progression has been based on this key objective and it is part of the upcoming challenges and upcoming games.
“So far we have played 20 games and there are 20 more games to play until we play the opening game against New Zealand, so it is a very clear roadmap. But the goal today is to be in the here and now and now we’re completely focused on the next, upcoming tournament, which starts with the game against Italy.
“This tournament is always very difficult because every team has great potential, and every game is different and unique with different strategies and tactics,” he added.
“Our ambition is to win our games and win the competition. We finished first with the same ranking (points) as England (losing out on points difference) in 2020, and last year we finished second after Wales, but our ambition has remained the same.
“We have drawn a lot from all these experiences and drawn a lot of lessons. Our staff keep improving and the level of maturity of our players is improving every day. With this great experience that we keep nurturing through these different steps, we want to achieve that last stage of the process.”
SEXTON GLAD TO BE BACK
Talking of momentum, Ireland extended their winning streak to eight matches during the Autumn Nations Series, including a famous victory over the All Blacks.
With the Irish provinces doing well in the Heineken Champions Cup and evergreen fly-half Johnny Sexton back to fitness and on top of his game, confidence is high in the Emerald Isle that the men in green can do well.
“This is the start of a new competition that means a lot to all the nations and we know that we have got to keep constantly to make sure we are in with a chance,” said Sexton.
“I feel great, I have had a couple of frustrating months but thankfully I’m back on the field.
“I think we have a young squad and the guys bring great energy and I am glad to be part of it.
“We put things together in November and hope to continue down that line. We have the champions first up at home and all our focus is on that at the moment.”
As for the contrasting fortunes between the Irish provinces and the Welsh regions, Sexton does not buy into it as a barometer of how the Six Nations might pan out.
“It has no correlation,” he insisted. “I can rewind to five or six years ago to when the Irish provinces were flying and the Welsh regions were struggling and they beat us.
“They are the defending champions and were a couple of minutes away from winning a Grand Slam, and they had a great November as well.”
SCOTLAND’S BIGGEST GAME
For Scotland, it was a case of so near yet so far with a top-half of the table finish eluding them once again despite wins against England and France.
Scotland have England first up this year, and Townsend says they couldn’t have asked for a more exciting start, especially with a raucous home crowd to cheer them on.
“I believe it’s the most eagerly awaited game we’ve had for a few years,” he said. “The Six Nations is a brilliant tournament, it’s a real privilege to be involved in it, and to have crowds back this year makes it even more special,” said Townsend.
“We know this is the biggest game we face, it’s such a historic fixture. We’re playing for a famous trophy and it’s 151 years old. To have it first up adds to the buzz around the Six Nations. It will focus our minds next week.”
ITALY READY FOR WHAT’S AHEAD
Italy’s main goal is to win a first Six Nations match since 2015. They will do so with a new head coach and captain at the helm in Kieran Crowley and Michele Lamaro, respectively.
“We are still a new team, so we are adapting, but we are young and have lots of energy to give,” said Lamoro.
“Most of us have played in the Guinness Six Nations before, so we have that experience this year as a group and hope to combine that with our energy.
“We have 23 players from Benetton and that group has a connection. Our form in the United Rugby Championship gives us confidence on the field but this is a different stage.
“France are in form, so the first game will be difficult. We have to bring our energy and passion.”