Smart money on Gatland's veterans to come out tops
Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30
The bookies have England as favourites for this year's Six Nations - again - which knowing types will tell you is a result of the waves of patriotic money that flow their way. Nestled in behind them, though, are Ireland and Wales, and those same types will say that these two are the real favourites.
The media preliminaries at this time of year have become an excruciating round of platitudes as each coach tries to be nicer about the opposition than the last. But the longer the odes go on the more convincing sound those sung in praise of Wales.
Here, for example, is Joe Schmidt, coach of Ireland, champions of the last two editions, on the prospect of facing Wales first up, even with the benefit of home advantage. "They come into the competition with the best continuity," he said. "They have comfortably 300 caps more than any other team. On top of that, the stats at the World Cup show that they are literally the biggest team in world rugby, averaging 106kg a man. For us, that is going to be a challenge."
The continuity argument does ring true. England and France have new coaches. Ireland are facing a future without Paul O'Connell, while injury has robbed them of a host of others. Warren Gatland, meanwhile, is preparing for his ninth Six Nations in charge of Wales, whose World Cup injury list is easing.
Sam Warburton, captain for a fifth Championship, agrees that Wales are in a good place. "It is nice that we have guys who have been there for quite a long time. When we come into camp there is not too much meet and greet. We have a club feel about us."
Gatland, like all the other coaches, has done his best to insist that everyone else has a better chance than his team do, but the poor fellow does not look comfortable amid the general love-in. He used to be happier taking a few shots at the next opposition, but these days is reining himself in.
"I admit that sometimes I threw a few of those little grenades out there," he said. "But what I've struggled with recently is that if you give an honest answer, it can be twisted."
One famous furore surrounded his digs at Dylan Hartley five years ago. Now he has resorted to using that incident, and Hartley's subsequent performance in England's win in Cardiff that year, as further demonstration of what Wales are up against, with Hartley now installed as England's captain. "I had a crack at him, he responded, and there was only one winner out of that battle. It wasn't me."
The deference is almost too painful to behold. Nevertheless, it is true that Wales's two away games - against Ireland and England - will go some way to determining the success or otherwise of their championship, particularly the crucial first in Dublin.
Even years mean Wales and Ireland, along with France, enjoy home advantage three times, and those who seek patterns might note that the Six Nations following the last two World Cups have both resulted in Welsh Grand Slams. Wales have started the last three Championships slowly, but for their 2012 Grand Slam they were at their best in the first game, in Dublin against Ireland.
Of all the coaches meticulously talking down their team's chances, Gatland is looking the least convincing. Whether that is because, after eight years of it, he is tired of the mind games, or because he is presiding over this year's real favourites and he knows it, remains to be seen. Schmidt would argue it was the latter. He may well be right.
Sunday Indo Sport