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Three to watch: Wales

Three to watch: Wales

Sitting third in the world after completing a clean sweep in the Autumn Internationals, Welsh rugby fans have every reason to feel buoyant ahead of the 2019 Guinness Six Nations.

Many observers had questioned Wales’ chances going into last year’s Championship, with Warren Gatland’s side viewed as being in transition with several key players ruled out through injury.

But despite slipping to defeats to England and eventual Grand Slam winners Ireland, they claimed a second-place finish with impressive performances against Scotland and France in particular.

The rest of 2018 demonstrated the growing squad depth available to Gatland as Wales went on to complete an unbeaten summer tour before winning all four of their Autumn Internationals for an unprecedented clean sweep.

And with the 2019 Guinness Six Nations now on the horizon, here are three of the players to watch out for during Wales’ latest challenge for the Championship title.

Aaron Wainwright

He was not even in the squad for the Championship in 2018, but Aaron Wainwright’s rise to prominence has been nothing short of meteoric in the past 12 months.

The 21-year-old only started playing rugby just over three years ago, having previously looked destined for a career in football after being on the books of Cardiff City and Newport.

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Wainwright started playing rugby for Dragons Under-18s and Cardiff Met University, where he was studying at the time, before injuries enabled him to breakthrough into the region’s senior team.

The back rower, who can play both openside and blindside, grabbed his opportunity with both hands and has not look back since, with his performances subsequently catching the eye of Gatland.

He was called up for Wales’ summer tour of the USA and Argentina before coming off the bench to play a key role in the 20-11 victory against South Africa in the final Test of the autumn series.

An athletic, dynamic carrier and tenacious defender, Wainwright has been Dragons’ standout player over the festive period and looks all set to make his Six Nations bow in February.

Gareth Anscombe

One of the main selection issues for Gatland to think about ahead of the Guinness Six Nations will be who he wants to start in the Wales No.10 jersey at the Stade de France.

But Gareth Anscombe has strived to make the decision much easier in recent weeks with a string of impressive performances for Cardiff Blues, which appear to have put him in pole position.

He went toe-to-toe England’s Owen Farrell when the Blues welcomed Saracens to Cardiff Arms Park in the Champions Cup despite the home side eventually falling to a narrow defeat.

The 27-year-old’s kicking out of hand was exemplary, while his movement and passing got runners into the game, and he was just as good in Cardiff’s win over Dragons in December.

Anscombe was also trusted by Gatland to start three of the four Autumn Internationals, although his rival for the fly-half position, Dan Biggar, did kick the winning points against South Africa.

Biggar has previously been Gatland’s go-to man and has done well since his move to Northampton Saints, but Anscombe is sure to be integral to Wales’ Championship hopes.

George North

When he is at his best, George North is pure box office on the rugby field – that has certainly been the case since he decided to make the move from Northampton Saints to Ospreys.

Flourishing after crossing the Severn Bridge on a national dual contract, the electrifying winger has been scoring tries for fun for his new club, with five coming in his first six games.

He grabbed a double on his debut as he guided Ospreys to a 17-13 win against Edinburgh in the Guinness PRO14, before touching down again against Toyota Cheetahs, Scarlets and Pau.

But it has not just been on the scoreboard where North has made a difference, with the 26-year-old seemingly being at the forefront of everything the Ospreys do since his return to Wales.

He faced serious competition for a wing spot during last year’s Championship as he made just two starts, although he provided a reminder of what he can do with two tries against Italy.

This time around he is sure to be Gatland’s main man once again and all eyes will be on him to see whether he can replicate his form for Ospreys in the famous red jersey.