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Ailing Wales face massive challenge in Six Nations defence

Ailing Wales face massive challenge in Six Nations defence

Wales won the Six Nations championship in 2021 courtesy of a late collapse by France in their final game of the tournament. Les Bleus failed to see out a late lead against Gregor Townsend's men as Duhan van der Merwe found the try line at the Stade de France, handing Scotland a narrow win. As a result of Wales' four wins they beat out Fabien Galthié's side for the crown, perhaps even surprising themselves and their own expectations at the start of the Six Nations.

Wayne Pivac and his team now have the challenge of defending the title, although it will be an uphill task considering the number of key players that Wales are scheduled to be without for the duration of the tournament. The Dragons are backed in the Six Nations Paddy Power odds at 8/1 to regain their crown, highlighting the issues that Pivac will face throughout the tournament, not only with the quality of France, England, Ireland and Scotland, but also the injuries that have ripped the core out of his team. Pivac has cultivated a strong spirit within the ranks, ensuring that the high standards that were evident under Warren Gatland have been retained.

It is why they will be considered a solid option in one-off games in the rugby tips, but the competition as a whole will likely be beyond their reach. The most significant of their injuries is the loss of inspirational skipper Alun Wyn Jones. The locker has not only excelled in the second row for the Dragons for over a decade, but he has also led from the front and has been their driving force behind several Six Nations titles, including last season. He has been plagued with a shoulder problem since dislocating it in a warm-up match for the British and Irish Lions last year, and although he made a heroic comeback to play on the tour, it appears it has come at a price. Wales will also be without Ken Owens and Josh Navidi from the forward line, robbing the Dragons of quality and further leadership on the field.

It is not only up front where Wales are ailing. Leigh Halfpenny suffered knee ligament damage against Canada last year, while George North has not recovered from a torn anterior cruciate ligament sustained last April while playing for Cardiff. There will be greater pressure on the experienced players remaining in the squad to take on more responsibility. Dan Biggar and Gareth Davies should have no problem controlling the backfield with Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert and Louis Rees-Zammit in place. However, there is a lack of options in the forward line to replace the chasm left by Jones along with Navidi and Owens.

Adam Beard has enjoyed a fine start to his international career and is certainly the heir apparent to Jones in the second row. He will need to take the step up sooner than anticipated to control set-pieces for the Dragons, and exert influence as a ball-carrier. The 26-year-old will also have to aid the player slotted in beside him in the ranks, and there are not a great number of options. Will Rowlands appears to be the man who is ready for the challenge, although Pivac gave the role to Ben Carter, who has made six appearances to date. At the age of 20, Carter is extremely raw, but could have the potential to settle into the position for the long haul.

Seb Davies could also push for a start, although he might be required elsewhere to fill the gaps at flanker. Aaron Wainwright should be available to anchor the back row, but once more Pivac will have to turn to inexperienced options such as Ellis Jenkins or Shane Lewis-Hughes. It may leave them extremely vulnerable to the potent forward lines of England and France, while Ireland will also be out to make a statement in the opening match of the competition.

There are no perfect remedies for Pivac and he will be hoping that his squad players rise to the challenge against the elite teams in the competition. France will be out to avenge their disappointment from last year, while England will be aiming to bounce back from their underwhelming 2021 tournament. Both teams will be out to prove a point and an undermanned Wales could see a dramatic fall from grace.

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