Wayne Pivac has predicted a “closely contested” Guinness Six Nations Championship as Wales prepare to kick off their title defence.
Despite winning the tournament last season, Wales are struggling as fourth favorites with the bookmakers behind France, England and Ireland.
On the surface, that’s potentially a fair mark considering Wales don’t have multiple star players injured for the entire competition.
This list includes captain Alun Wyn Jones, as well as fellow British and Irish Lions Leigh Halfpenny, Ken Owens, Josh Navidi and Justin Tipuric, while George North, Dan Lydiate and Taulupe Faletau have only outside chances to be involved. in the later stages of the competition.
Wales head coach Pivac has less than around 700 caps of Test match experience and his players face a tough first game against in-form Ireland on February 5 before hosting Scotland, then to face England at Twickenham.
The form since last year’s title triumph has been uneven, the highlight being an Autumn Nations Series win over Australia but that was preceded by defeats to Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.
With Ireland and France toppling the All Blacks in November and England taking the scalp of world champions South Africa, Pivac accepts that a major test awaits him.
“It will probably be a big challenge again with the progress made by France, England and Ireland,” he said.
“We are all trying to advance and develop our teams, and we are no different.
“We’re a bit paralyzed by our availability, but certainly the opportunities that arise for others and the excitement that comes with it, hopefully that will go a long way in helping us get the performance we’re looking for.
“With injured players, there are around eight or nine players there with 680 Test caps. I would challenge any team to lose that amount of experience and come out overconfident.
“We are confident in the group. It will be a big challenge, but it is certainly for us to start the competition well and to build, as we did last year.
“I thought the Six Nations last year were really competitive. There were a lot of close 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.
“After this fall series with the performances of France and Ireland and England having a good win over the world champions, it’s going to be very tightly contested. I’m sure there will be close scores.
Wales have lost five of their last seven visits to the Aviva Stadium in Dublin, so what happens there could shape their entire Six Nations campaign.
Victory, and they will fly off to visit Cardiff in Scotland seven days later, but a defeat in the Irish capital could signal a long and frustrating tournament.
Pivac added: “It’s the usual cliche, but the game against Ireland becomes paramount for us, getting off to a good start. We know the challenge that awaits us there, as history will tell you that it is not an easy place to navigate.
“They control the ball for long stretches, and you saw that against New Zealand in the fall. They’ve frustrated the New Zealand defense for long stretches, and their ability to return or slow the ball down means you have to be right.
“If you don’t face Ireland physically, it’s going to be a long day at the office. We’re going to have to prepare very well to play the way we want.
“They are a team that can choke you with the ball. They hold the ball for long periods of time, so your defense has to be up to it and you have to take your scoring opportunities when they arise.