As Wales’s injury problems mounted ahead of their opening Six Nations match against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday, punters were putting so much money on them to win the title, seduced perhaps by the men in red’s strong World Cup showing, that they have become the second favourites behind France. But injuries and historical precedent suggest that optimistic punters will once again be funding the bookies lifestyle.
Wales missed out on the World Cup final after losing 9-8 to France in the last four. They played for the last 61 minutes with 14 men after their captain, Sam Warburton, was sent off for a dangerous tackle, but more costly was the profligacy of their goal-kickers: between them, James Hook, Stephen Jones and Leigh Halfpenny missed four kicks at goal out of five.
Wales were one of the best coached teams at the World Cup, and probably the best conditioned, a legacy of two gruelling training camps in Poland in July which tested the endurance of every player. Warren Gatland took his charges back to Poland last month, but only for a week and with the emphasis this time more on rest as a consequence of 18 months of virtual non-stop rugby.
Wales had a toxic blend of youth and experience in the World Cup but there will be more of an imbalance in the Six Nations: three former captains, Gethin Jenkins, Matthew Rees and Alun Wyn Jones are injured and will miss at least the first two rounds, while the second row Luke Charteris will not be available until the summer tour to Australia.
Gatland delayed naming his side to face Ireland until Friday, hoping that Dan Lydiate, Rhys Priestland and Jamie Roberts would all recover from leg injuries. With Shane Williams having retired from international rugby, he faced being without seven of the side that started against Ireland in the World Cup quarter-final last October.
Wales were one of the more popular teams in New Zealand, and not just because of Gatland’s status as a former All Black. They were tactically astute and the emergence of Priestland at outside-half, a player who at the beginning of August thought he would be shadowing Lee Byrne at full-back, transformed them.
Wales had become predictable but Priestland’s ability to assess his options before receiving the ball, coupled with the way their forwards competed at the breakdown, gave his side time and, outside him, the likes of Roberts, George North and Shane Williams made an impact. Priestland missed the semi-final and play-off because of injury and, without him, Wales became lateral even though in James Hook and Stephen Jones they had two experienced 10s.
It was as if the profound impact made by Priestland unnerved them and they failed to repair his loss. Hook has since moved to Perpignan where he is regularly playing at outside-half having been used in the centre and at full-back by Ospreys and he was the likely replacement should Priestland fail a fitness test on his injured knee.
It is not just injuries that prompt caution when assessing Wales’s chances. Their fixture list would suggest that, at the very best, they will win no more than three matches this Six Nations. Statistics suggest they will manage two.
Wales face Ireland and England away and their final match is at home to France. Only once since 1978 have they won all three fixtures in the same campaign, back in 2008, Gatland’s first year in charge when they completed the grand slam.
They have beaten France in the championship in Cardiff three times since 1982, the same number of victories they have enjoyed at Twickenham in that time. They have won in Dublin twice in the Six Nations, in 2000 and 2008.
Strip away 2008 and their number of successes at home to France and away to England are the same, zero. In 2002, 2004, 2006 and 2010, they did not win one match against Ireland, England or France.
History is against Gatland’s men, as it was in the last World Cup. At full strength, they would have the means to defy it, but they look next year’s model and Ireland, who were blown away in windy Wellington, have it in them to won the tournament.
They just need to replicate the ability of Munster and Leinster to win matches in which they are below their best.