By Jon Newcombe
On the back of becoming the first side to ever beat New Zealand on the Junior World Championship stage and recording their best ever finish last year, Wales enter the RBS Under 20 Six Nations 2013 in good shape.
Looking to build on their success in South Africa and improve on a fourth place finish in the Six Nations 12 months ago, Wales begin the Championship with a home game against Ireland at Parc Eirias in Colwyn Bay on Friday.
Ireland have held the upper hand in past meetings at this level, with three wins and a draw from the five matches played.
All five, though, were settled by a single score or less, including the 11-6 victory for Ireland on home soil in last year’s corresponding fixture.
Ireland captain Luke McGrath recognises it could be tournament-defining night for his new-look side.
“Wales play at a high tempo, they’ve got good backs and strong forwards and they’ll definitely be up for it - especially at home,” said McGrath, one of only two players in the squad to have played in Ireland's best-ever Junior World Championship campaign in 2012, when they were the only side to beat champions South Africa en route to finishing fifth.
“It is very important we start well early, it’s almost vital we get a win over in Wales to kind of get everyone’s confidence up.”
The majority of the Ireland squad that fell just short of winning the Grand Slam last year has moved on, some of them – like captain Paddy Jackson and Iain Henderson - making the grade at either senior international or provincial level.
Wales, by way of contrast, are able to call on a number of last year’s campaigners in their Six Nations squad, and five of the bronze medallists from JWC 2012 are named in the starting line-up in Colwyn Bay, with three more on the bench.Full back Dion Jones will start in front of his hometown crowd at Parc Eirias, while Ospreys fly half Sam Davies retains the No.10 jersey he wore at the Junior World Championship.
“To finish third in the world was probably an achievement that not many people expected from the last World Cup, and to beat New Zealand was definitely one that not many people expected,” said Wales head coach Danny Wilson.
“Those two achievements have given us confidence; there are a number of players coming back who gained from those experiences and hopefully they will instill that in the other boys that are coming in.
VIDEO: Relive the IRB Junior World Championship 2012
“If we can expose more boys to this level of rugby we’ll be in a similar position, where hopefully come the World Cup we’ll have a bit of depth and we won’t be frightened to rotate the squad in certain positions.
“As we said last season, this is the starting point of our journey towards the Junior World Championship, but we are very keen to start well on Friday.”
Overall the Six Nations has proved a happy hunting ground for England in recent seasons, with last year’s success following on from two Grand Slams in the previous four years.
The form book suggests England will begin their title defence with victory over Scotland, who they host at Brickfields in Plymouth on Friday.
England have a ‘nap hand’ of victories over their great rivals, scoring over a half-century of points in each of the last two outings.
Jack Clifford captains England while the visitors will be led out by Glasgow Warriors lock Jonny Gray, the 18-year-old brother of Scotland second row Richie, who trod the path from Under 20s to the Test arena via the Junior World Championship.
A 20-17 final day defeat to Scotland ensured Italy finished with the wooden spoon for the third time in five years in 2012.
Italy’s bid to add to their tally of just two wins in the history of the Under 20 Six Nations starts with a home match against France in Sicily.
The Azzurrini are the only side in the Six Nations who will not be travelling to France in June for the IRB Junior World Championship 2013, having been relegated to the sister tournament, the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Chile after failing to win a match at JWC 2012 in South Africa.
France have never lost to Italy at this level, but Les Bleuets did not have it all their own way in last year’s fixture and had to rely on a second try two minutes from time to seal a 19-5 victory, so will not be underestimating their opponents.