It will be strange being at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Sunday and not being part of the Wales squad. I will still be on the inside looking out, but this time occupying a position in the commentary box rather than on the wing.
Ireland away first up is as tough as you can get in the Six Nations. It is being called a grudge match after Wales’s victory over them in the World Cup quarter-final in Wellington, but a new year brings a fresh start and both sides will know the importance of getting a championship campaign off to a winning start.
Ireland will be without Brian O’Driscoll, one of the best players of his generation who any side would miss, but I have been impressed with Gordon D’Arcy for Leinster in the last few months and I know Tommy Bowe well from the Ospreys. They have strong options in the three-quarters with a number of dangerous strike runners and you only have to look at the way Munster, Leinster and Ulster have performed in the Heineken Cup this season to appreciate the multi-layered threat Wales will face.
The key to our victory in Wellington was stopping Ireland’s back row from marauding over the gainline and getting in behind our defence, together with our ability, through the likes of Jamie Roberts and George North, to break tackles after receiving quick ball.
We tackled low so that the likes of Sean O’Brien went to ground immediately. Their back row averaged one yard per carry and we denied them the momentum they had enjoyed against Australia a few weeks before. We were able to play the game on our terms and we will have to do that again in Dublin.
I have not spoken to the Wales players this week. Their focus is the game and I will not be bothering them, but I know that they confident, both about Sunday and the Six Nations as a whole. We have been unfortunate with injuries, which have ruled out three of our World Cup front five, while three players who were key to our success in New Zealand, Jamie Roberts, Rhys Priestland and Dan Lydiate, were facing late fitness tests.
Wales have been vulnerable to injuries in the past but we have real strength in depth now. When Warren Gatland can call on someone like Stephen Jones to join the squad, it shows how far we have developed. Commentators have been going on about the effect my absence may have, but when you look at the back three options Warren has, through the likes of Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Lee Byrne and young Alex Cuthbert, I suspect I will not be missed.
I fancy Wales to win the Six Nations. The game that causes me the most apprehension, strange as it may seem, is England at Twickenham. They have taken a lot of stick in the last six months and did not enjoy the happiest of World Cups, but when you look at their squad you cannot help but be struck by its potential. They have players capable of big things.
Not yet, I hope. Wales have the three blues at home, Scotland, Italy and France, matches we should expect to be favourites to win. There were times during my career when we were apprehensive about going to places like Twickenham, but fear is a word that has been banished from the Wales changing room.
The key to our World Cup campaign was not so much our conditioning, fit though we were after going through two gruelling training camps in Poland, but the mental strength we showed, which was unlike anything I had experienced in a Wales squad before.
We did emerge from a very physical group that not everyone expected us to survive and the game against Samoa was among the toughest I ever played in, but we had only just started preparing for the tournament when young players like Sam Warburton and George North said they believed we were going to make the final and win it.
They were not talking for the sake of it; they believed what they were saying. Even as one of the senior players, I had not come across that mindset before. They had no fear of failure and that spread throughout the group. We were confident we would win the World Cup and it was not misplaced. We lost to France in the semi-final by a point after playing the last hour with 14 men and they went on to meet a New Zealand side who reserved their worst performance of the tournament for the final.
You can look back at the French game and wonder, but it has gone. I knew I was playing in my last World Cup and that I would never appear in a final, but the other players have the chance to go on and show that what we achieved in New Zealand was no flash in the pan. It was something that will sustain Wales in the coming years.
We returned home with an inner confidence and Warren will have used the training camp in Poland last week to rekindle the World Cup spirit. I will catch up with the players after the game, savouring, I believe, victory in what is sure to be a close, absorbing game between two top teams.