The Six Nations starts once again this weekend and naturally in the week before the tournament getting underway the predictions are flying in thick and fast.
It’s an interesting one this year as post-World Cup versions of the Six Nations often are, with players having retired at the end of the four-year cycle, coaches having departed or been relieved of their duties, and squads being regenerated with an eye on the next World Cup.
A lot of that is true for a number of the sides with Ireland starting life under Andy Farrell after the departure of Joe Schmidt while captain Rory Best has called time on his career, Italy being coached on an interim basis by Franco Smith and with Sergio Parisse winding down, as well as France naming an inexperienced squad along with welcoming Shaun Edwards into the fold.
England are in a slightly more settled situation with Eddie Jones staying at the helm and the squad retaining some consistency, although a number of Jones’ assistant coaches have changed, with Scotland the only team to have a properly similar feel to that which we saw at the World Cup.
On the flip side though, Wales are arguably seeing the most changed setup, with Wayne Pivac coming in as head coach, Jonathan Humphreys looking after the forwards and Byron Hayward taking on the defence. Stephen Jones is also joining as attack coach, although he stepped into the role early after Rob Howley was relieved of his duties before the World Cup.
Aside from the Scarlets players in the squad, most players will only have worked with the new coaching staff for a week in November having spent 12 years under Warren Gatland and his staff. None of the new coaches, aside from Humphreys, have significant international experience, and the squad has a number of new faces.
WillGriff John, Will Rowlands, Nick Tompkins, Louis Rees-Zammit and Johnny McNicholl are all potential new caps, the likes of Leon Brown, Rhys Carre, Jarrod Evans and Jonah Holmes are all still relatively new at this level while Taulupe Faletau, Rhys Webb and Owen Williams return after lengthy absences from the squad.
There is also the tactical side of the change, with Pivac and Jones likely to take Wales away from the rather one-dimensional, kicking-dominated style of attack that we saw under Gatland and Howley, towards a more expensive and skill-orientated mindset.
All that leaves more questions than answers about how Wales are expected to do over the next two months, and that should allow Pivac to avoid the pressure of getting results instantly, allowing him to mould the side to his liking over the first year or so of his reign before the pressure properly comes on in time for the 2021 Six Nations.
This will be key to remember if this year’s tournament is not panning out particularly successfully by March, but there is a little voice at the back of my mind that Wales could do something special this year and really hit the ground running under Pivac.
While the coaching personnel has changed and the new faces will have to adjust to the squad, the spine of the team can remain largely unchanged, with key players Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Leigh Halfpenny/Liam Williams still in position.
The attacking game plan may change but the basic structures that have been left by Gatland and his coaching staff are of a very high level and just need tweaking rather than overhauling. The set piece is very good, the defence is one of the best in the world, the carrying game belies the lack of size we have in the pack when compared to other sides.
In terms of re-gaining and maintaining structure when play becomes broken we are highly proficient, and the quality of the kicking game is right up there. Add in slightly more adventure to the attack in phase play and when countering, and Wales could be a real threat.
The key for me will be selecting the right backs, and this is where Pivac will be watched closely and could garner criticism from the get-go. If his selections are too hap-hazard or left-field then questions will be asked. Supporters will want to see the team aiming for victory, even if the coaching staff are cut some slack during their first tournament in charge.
While there are debates to be had up front around who starts at tighthead, who joins Alun Wyn Jones in the second row and who starts at blindside flanker alongside Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau, the backs is where there are the most unknowns.
Scrum-half, fly-half, both centres and one wing spot are up for grabs against Italy, assuming Leigh Halfpenny and Josh Adams are nailed on to start, and then with Owen Watkin and Liam Williams expected to be fit for the away game at Ireland in round two there are further decisions to be made.
If he gets the balance right then Wales have a great opportunity to do that something special, with a top three finish a great achievement for a first Six Nations, especially if there is still a chance to win a trophy in round five.
However, if there’s a struggle to find that balance then the tournament could become a damp squib very quickly. All eyes on Thursday’s team announcement…