By Tadhg Peavoy
If Wales can win the RBS 6 Nations this year they will make history as the first side to ever win the tournament three times in succession.
Both England (2000, 2001) and France (2006, 2007) have won back-to-back titles, but a golden trio of victories proved beyond both those sides.
There is no doubt coming into the tournament this year that, despite the pressure upon them, they are the favourites to once again finish top of the pile.
So much about the Six Nations is momentum, and with a home tie against Italy to get them under way, it would be a very brave man who would bet against Wales coming to Ireland for round two without a victory to their name.
That tie at Aviva Stadium represents perhaps the most eagerly anticipated of all the clashes in this year’s championship, as Lions head coach Warren Gatland and Brian O’Driscoll meet competitively for the first time since the former dropped the latter for the deciding Lions Test match last summer.
If Wales can overcome Ireland, they have the comfort of returning home to play France, before a very difficult assignment away to England, and then a tournament closer at home against Scotland.
Of course the unpredictability of this tournament is perhaps its greatest selling point, but if one applies logic of form and home advantage, that Anglo-Welsh clash in round four could go a long way towards deciding who takes top honours this term.
Wales have beaten France twice on the trot now, and have six straight victories over Scotland to their name, so both Scotland and France will deservedly travel to the Millennium Stadium as underdogs.
Wales looked the best of those three sides over the autumn Tests and that recent form also points to the fact Wales should take four points from those two fixtures.
Gatland’s team dismantled Argentina in the most facile of manners, running in four tries en to route to a 34-point victory, and pushed both South Africa and Australia very close last November.
Why have Wales looked so good? And why do they threaten to rule Europe again this season? Because their strength in every position across the field is unrivalled in the Six Nations.
All of the other five teams have fissures of weakness in areas across their squads, while Wales have looked the most genuinely balanced of all the European sides since the 2013 Six Nations.
With a spine of Gethin Jenkins, Richard Hibbard, Adam Jones, Alun-Wyn Jones and Sam Warburton, it is a formidable pack that Gatland has at his disposal.
Behind the pack, Mike Phillips’s strength from scrum-half remains a superb asset for Wales, while with Rhys Priestland and Dan Biggar both available, the Welsh have two excellent options at ten.
In the backline there is a coterie of talent. Jamie Roberts, Jonathan Davies, Alex Cuthbert, George North and Leigh Halfpenny represent some of the finest rugby talent to have ever emerged from the Principality. Their combination of speed, skill and size has been a joy to watch these last few seasons and will take some stopping.
The clash with Ireland in round two is crucial. If Wales can win that tie, it will give them real momentum and the confidence to surge past France and into that meeting with England.
However, France will pose a threat in Cardiff, and in this tournament in general.
Les Bleus have won the championship that took place in the year after a Lions tour on the last four occasions: (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010). The freshness their players have possessed come the following spring has been the nugget that has propelled them to victory in that quartet of years.
So, Wales need to overcome the huge challenge of the most anticipated game of the championship against Ireland in Dublin, a fresh France side in Cardiff, and a grudge match against England at Twickenham. That last clash of the three perhaps looks the most daunting.
The Red Rose will be targeting revenge for their 30-3 mauling in Cardiff last year, and the clash will likely be a one-score game, whichever side comes out on top.
When all is said and done, this Welsh side have overcome great odds in the past to establish themselves as the dominant side in Europe these last few seasons, meaning at the very least a finish outside the top two seems unlikely.
Wales squad for the 2014 RBS 6 Nations:
Forwards: Paul James (Bath), Gethin Jenkins (Cardiff Blues), Ryan Bevington (Ospreys), Richard Hibbard (Ospreys), Sam Parry (Newport Gwent Dragons), Ken Owens (Scarlets), Emyr Phillips (Scarlets), Adam Jones (Ospreys), Samson Lee (Scarlets), Rhodri Jones (Scarlets), Alun Wyn Jones (Ospreys), Jake Ball (Scarlets), Luke Charteris (Perpignan), Ian Evans (Ospreys), Andrew Coombs (Dragons), Justin Tipuric (Ospreys), Sam Warburton Capt (Cardiff Blues), Toby Faletau (Dragons), Dan Lydiate (Racing Metro), Aaron Shingler (Scarlets)
Backs: Rhodri Williams (Scarlets), Mike Phillips (Racing Metro), Rhys Webb (Ospreys), Dan Biggar (Ospreys), Rhys Priestland (Scarlets), James Hook (Perpignan), Jonathan Davies (Scarlets), Jamie Roberts (Racing Metro), Scott Williams (Scarlets), Alex Cuthbert (Cardiff Blues), George North (Northampton Saints), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff Blues), Liam Williams (Scarlets).