Wales, like England, have opted for a dash of youth in their Six Nations squad. Six uncapped players in their 35 include the 18-year old wing Harry Robinson, who has made his mark on the sevens circuit.
Ireland, in contrast, have named a 24 from players who were in New Zealand for last year’s World Cup. The outside-half Ronan O’Gara, who will celebrate his 35th birthday during the tournament, battles on at a time when Wales’s Stephen Jones has been recalled from duty after 104 caps.
Wales and England are looking to the 2015 World Cup while Ireland, under their coach Declan Kidney, are focusing on the present. Why a tournament which is more than three years away should assume more importance that the oldest international competition is questionable.
England are under interim management, but if Wales, Scotland or Ireland, the three teams in the Six Nations who have not changed their coaching teams since the World Cup, have a bad tournament, their head coaches may not be around in 2013, never mind two years later.
Wales are not all about the future. Gavin Henson is 30 at the start of next month and that seems the number of recalls he has had to the national squad. He has only started three games for Cardiff Blues this season, taking his total to nine since the beginning of April 2009, and will not feature in the region’s Heineken Cup match against Racing Metro on Sunday, which they need to win to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Warren Gatland, the Wales coach, admitted that he had considered not including Henson because of the disproportionate media attention he knew the centre’s return would command. Gatland is taking a punt, knowing he has little to lose: he is not struggling for options in midfield, particularly with Jamie Roberts expected to have recovered from a knee injury to face Ireland in Dublin on the opening weekend, but Henson, at his best, offers something that is rare in British rugby: vision and a desire to keep the ball in hand.
It may be stretching it to say that someone who has won 33 caps is a talent unfulfilled, but much of Henson’s career has been a waste: he has yet to appear in a World Cup and his one Lions tour saw him used more for promotional than playing purposes.
Gatland is reluctant to let Henson go because he has no other second-five so able to match creativity with defensive presence. Henson has only been on the losing side in a Six Nations match that he has started once, on his last appearance in the tournament in 2009 against Ireland.
Wales are regarded as a strong bet for the Six Nations with England in transition, France swapping one individual coach in Marc Lievremont for another in Philippe Saint-Andre, Ireland without Brian O’Driscoll and Scotland having forgotten what it takes to score a try.
Wales were lauded for their showing in the World Cup when they reached the semi-final, but their record of four wins and three defeats in the tournament told a familiar story: close but not close enough against the major unions. A one-point defeat against South Africa in their opening game was the margin they lost to France in the last four.
Wales have only beaten the major southern hemisphere nations three times in the professional era, once every 17 games. They have tended to run Australia and South Africa close under Gatland, beating the Wallabies in 2008, but tend to find different ways to lose.
The national side reflects the four regions which underpin them. No Welsh side qualified for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals last season and only Cardiff Blues have a real chance of doing so this year, not least because they have been in a group in which the most experience sides, Racing Metro and London Irish, have exhibited suicidal tendencies.
The Scarlets and Ospreys were well placed after the opening two rounds. They went into their key double-headers against Munster and Saracens respectively, unbeaten, but they were both doubled. All four matches were close, but the Welsh sides lacked the knowhow to close them out.
One of the reasons, perhaps, that Gatland is prepared to shed some experience and trust in youth is that some of his older warriors are scarred by defeats. It did not work during the World Cup and, with Ireland seeking revenge on the opening weekend for the World Cup defeat against Wales in Wellington, it will be tested immediately.