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Thursday January 23, 2014 MYT 1:27:01 AM
Thursday January 23, 2014 MYT 1:27:15 AM
by michael hann
LONDON (Reuters) - Warren Gatland is back in charge of Wales' Six Nations team after missing last year's tournament due to his British and Irish Lions commitments with the aim of making them the first winners of an unparalleled third successive outright title.
Assistant coach Rob Howley led the side to Six Nations glory in Gatland's absence and, speaking at the official Six Nations launch on Wednesday, the 50-year-old former All Blacks hooker is delighted to be back to continue the Welsh charge.
"It is nice to be able to come back in with the team having won the last couple (of titles)," Gatland told reporters from the idyllic surroundings of the Hurlingham sports club in west London.
"We have already achieved a lot but we are not satisfied with that. We can go through, hopefully, a period of sustained success in Wales.
"For us, and these players, they can potentially leave a legacy behind."
Having masterminded a 2-1 British and Irish Lions victory over Australia, Gatland has worked up-close and personal with players from England, Ireland and Scotland.
However, the New Zealander is well aware that Wales must shake off any hangover left by the Lions tour if they are to put their name in the record books and surpass England (2000 and 2001) and France (2006 and 2007), who have won the title two years running.
"If you look at the last four Lions tours, France have won the Six Nations afterwards," Gatland said.
"It's the cumulative effect of a long season, a Lions tour and you get to this time of year and players are picking up injuries. They are jaded and just haven't got enough petrol in the tank.
"The focus for us now is to try and win three championships in a row and break the hoodoo of France winning after a Lions tour."
Wales begin the defence of their crown in Cardiff on February 1 against Italy, a side they have not lost to in six years, yet Gatland is wary of the threat posed by Jacques Brunel's men.
"I think, for us, it's that cliché of one game at a time and not underestimating anyone," he said.
"It's a potential banana skin, when you look at the Italian team and players you can never look past like Sergio Parisse in terms of what he's done."
A trip to Dublin and Joe Schmidt's Ireland follows, before they return to the Millennium Stadium to play a France side that finished last year's competition with the wooden spoon.
Wales then face England at Twickenham in a match that is already being labelled as a Six Nations decider, before rounding things off at home to Scotland.
But Gatland's return as head coach has not been all plain sailing, as he has been hit with injuries to experienced members of his squad.
Former captain Ryan Jones will miss the first half of the tournament with a hamstring injury, prop Gethin Jenkins is struggling with a knee injury, while Scarlets centre Jonathan Davies is out until March because of a chest muscle problem.
There are also doubts over captain Sam Warburton's fitness, as the 25-year-old openside flanker has not played since suffering a shoulder injury during Wales' 30-26 autumn defeat by Australia in Cardiff.
But the Cardiff Blues man is confident he will be fit for the majority of the tournament, even if he has to return to his club side to gain match fitness.
As the Welsh game goes through something of a golden era, the weight of expectation put upon the players has reached new levels, yet Warburton is not fazed by the additional pressure.
"I would much rather be a favourite than an underdog," said the Lions captain.
"It is nice that people are saying from the outside that Wales are favourites, but we will never underestimate how hard it is to win a Six Nations."
(Editing by Rex Gowar)
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