Have the mind games begun? Warren Gatland names Ireland as Six Nations 'favourites'
Wales boss Warren Gatland believes that this season's RBS 6 Nations Championship is "a little bit of an unknown quantity" - but he has installed title holders Ireland as favourites.
Wales' Six Nations opener is against Ireland in Dublin on February 7, while both England and France will be under the guidance of new coaches in Eddie Jones and Guy Noves, respectively.
Ireland are chasing a hat-trick of Six Nations crowns with head coach Joe Schmidt at the helm, although they go into battle without second-row talisman Paul O'Connell, who has retired from Test rugby, and have also been hit by some injury setbacks.
But Wales head coach Gatland said: "I think one of the things about the Irish is that they would like to go in with people writing them off, even though they have won the championship for the last two years.
"They have to go in as favourites. The thing about any Irish team is that you write them off, and you do that at your peril.
"We go into this tournament respecting them immensely, and particularly what they have achieved under Joe Schmidt over the last two seasons.
"I think they are favourites for the tournament, given the experience they have at knowing how to win, particularly under pressure. They have lost a couple of experienced players, but it is going to be a tough proposition for us.
"The Six Nations is a little bit of an unknown quantity, I suppose, in terms of a couple of new coaches with France and England.
"I think there a number of teams that can go out and do well in this competition. I think the opening round of games will give us some indication about where teams are at, and potentially who is capable of winning this competition."
Scarlets scrum-half Aled Davies, meanwhile, is the solitary uncapped player named by Gatland in a 37-man squad for this season's tournament.
Gatland has also handed recalls to Cardiff Blues wing Tom James and Blues flanker Josh Turnbull, while centre Jonathan Davies returns after missing the World Cup because of injury, but injuries rule out the likes of full-back Leigh Halfpenny, centre Scott Williams and scrum-half Rhys Webb.
The squad includes 31 players who featured for Wales during last year's World Cup, when Gatland's men reached the quarter-finals before bowing out against South Africa.
Scrum-half Mike Phillips announced his retirement from Test rugby after the tournament, with newcomer Davies joining fellow number nines Gareth Davies and Lloyd Williams.
And lock Alun-Wyn Jones, whose re-signing of a national dual contract with the Ospreys and Welsh Rugby Union was announced on Tuesday, features among a powerful contingent of forwards, joining fellow star names like captain Sam Warburton, prop Gethin Jenkins and number eight Taulupe Faletau.
Gatland added: "The service he (Jones) has given to Welsh rugby has been fantastic.
"It's been a pleasure for us to see him develop as a player into an extremely valuable and experienced member of the squad. He's world-class, and the fact he has committed himself to Welsh rugby is fantastic, both for the Ospreys and for us.
"The ideal scenario is we want all our players, if possible, playing in Wales.
"It means we have the ability to train with them, and to look after them from a strength and conditioning and a medical point of view. Having them here makes the regions stronger, and it helps the national team as well.
"The regions and the Union are working closely together to try and make that happen.
"We are under a lot of pressure, obviously, from English and French clubs in terms of the salaries that have been offered to players, and that's something we are going to have to deal with going forward.
"The goal is to try and keep as many players as we can playing in Wales."
Gatland, meanwhile, is a firm favourite to be British and Irish Lions head coach for the three-Test New Zealand tour next year, but he said on Tuesday: "I haven't had any conversations with anyone about that. I am only reading things in the media.
"If you have a good Six Nations and a good summer tour, then you are in contention. That is something I will think about later down the line.
"At the moment, the whole focus is about having a good Six Nations."
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