Last year was an eye opener for Wales.
Coming into their mid year tour to New Zealand, there was real optimism.
Despite a heartbreaking loss to South Africa in the quarterfinals of the World Cup the year prior, the Welsh were still a team everyone had their eye on, especially given the relative inexperienced ‘Baby Blacks’ team.
Perhaps NZ’s prompt destruction of the tourists should’ve served as a warning shot, but despite going 3-1 in the November test window, Wales looked slow, sluggish and far off their very best of two years ago.
It’s safe to say that running rugby is back, and last year this uptempo game style employed by Wales’ opponents made Warren Gatland’s famed ‘Warrenball’ look as outdated as ever.
Taken apart by an ordinary Australian outfit 32-8 and almost pipped at the post twice by Argentina (24-20) and Japan (33-30), all at home, makes for some grim reading.
The only fairly genuine positive provided was victory over an out of sorts South African side in the final test of the year, 27-13.
By any standard of measurement, it was an extremely disappointing year for Wales. The quick rucking and crash and bash style that Gatland and his men have worked on so hard over the years now looks almost obsolete.
This of course does not mean there remains no value in some of Wales’ best gain line breakers. Gethin Jenkins, Sam Warburton and new captain Alun Wyn Jones still remain some of the best in the world in their positions.
However, the breakthrough of players from last year such as Dan Lydiate, Ross Moriarty and Liam Williams show where the future of Welsh rugby lies, and right now, it looks vastly different from the current teams’ makeup.
Wales open their Six Nations account against Italy in Rome, who last year enjoyed a typically Italian rugby year.
However, they did manage to record what was arguably their most famous victory of all time – defeating the Springboks in Florence in front of 40,000 screaming Italian rugby fans.
Other positives included mid year victories over the United States and Canada, and close losses to France, Argentina and Tonga.
The main cause for Italian optimism for the future is new head coach Conor O’Shea, who took helm in April and is overseeing his first Six Nations Championship.
The 46-year-old Irishman has previously guided Harlequins to both domestic and European success, with one English Premiership medallion and one European Challenge Cup medallion in his trophy cabinet.
Italians will be hoping that the success he can bring to The Azzurri will mimic that of Eddie Jones’ efforts with Japan, when they too beat the Boks at the previous World Cup.
A good way to kick start that will be a Six Nations in which they don’t finish last.
As one coach begins his time as a top tier European international rugby coach, anothers’ ends, with Scotland looking to send their mentor Vern Cotter off in style as the New Zealander concludes his time in international rugby.
Praised for his returning of Scotland to winning ways, including a near sensational upset of the Australians in the quarterfinals of the previous World Cup, he will be a hard act to follow for incoming head coach Gregor Townsend.
Scotland’s success is built in large part due to the chemistry between the many club teammates, mostly at Glasgow Warriors, that play in the same position for their nation.
Cotter’s high standards of both work rate and skill have seen improved results in large tournaments, jumping from last to 4th in his two trips to the Six Nations with Scotland.
What the Scots would dearly love is to send their leader off with the kind of respect he deserves – by showing a true improvement and growth over three seasons of hard work.
This is entirely possible, as Scotland enjoy three home games this year, only requiring a trip to France, whom they beat in this tournament last year, and a trip to Twickenham to face old foes England.
Scotland will be eyeing a plucky 3rd. To get there, they’ll need to play their best rugby of the Cotter era, but they have shown before that such efforts are entirely possible with it all on the line.