Going into the 2024 Six Nations, Warren Gatland’s Wales side have dominated the headlines – but not for reasons they would’ve cared for.
Gatland’s star winger Louis Rees-Zammit shocked the sporting world in January when he revealed he would desert rugby to follow his dreams across the pond in the NFL.
A decision with seismic effects on his national side, Rees-Zammit leaves a massive hole in the Welsh setup, adding to their mounting problems surrounding selection.
After a satisfactory but hardly inspiring performance at last year’s Rugby World Cup, Wales have seen their squad become increasingly depleted by injuries and retirements.
Fly-half Dan Biggar became the latest Wales great to hang up his boots after the tournament, just months after former captains Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric also bid farewell to international rugby.
Also without talismanic skipper Jac Morgan due to a knee injury, Gatland’s lost a number of key dressing room leaders – leaving him reliant on younger players to step up in this year’s Six Nations.
Wales now boast one of the youngest international captains ever in 21-year-old Dafydd Jenkins – who despite his age is already an established leader, captaining Exeter Chiefs at club level.
Fans will hope he can handle the pressure of leading on the international stage as the nation seeks to vastly improve on their dismal fifth-placed Six Nations campaign last year.
Another man with a point to prove is Rio Dyer, the likely choice to fill the boots of American football-bound Rees-Zammit.
Dyer has long been overshadowed in the Wales squad, but the 24-year-old remains a fine talent and will be keen to cause damage on the wing.
There remains a decent level of experience within the Wales team, with 118-cap centre George North and veteran scrum-half Gareth Davies set to play an ever-present role in their Six Nations campaign.
However, with the likes of Taulupe Faletau, Callum Sheedy and Taine Plumtree all expected to be out for the tournament, squad options remain limited.
Many have therefore shot down Wales’s chances at any Six Nations success this year, predicting another low finish that could put pressure on Gatland’s position as head coach.
That said, Wales have a precedent of showing up their doubters, and their fresh-faced side could yet prove to be the tournament’s surprise package.
They kick off a rough fixture schedule this Saturday against a resurgent Scotland side, and will be hoping to set the tone by avenging last year’s 35-7 romping at the hands of Gregor Townsend’s men.