Hansen hopes to build on new sense of Welsh optimism

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The Independent Online

Steve Hansen is not given to histrionics or hysterics. Things happen, good or bad, but in public at least, all the New Zealander might do is raise an eyebrow, or furrow the forehead, while any comment he may make will be delivered deadpan, with not a trace of emotion in it.

So when he acknowledges that Wales appears to be awash in a tide of optimism, it must mean that something good is going on.

For a change, the mood going in to the Six Nations opener against Scotland at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff today is one of anticipation rather than apprehension.

Wales' prospects in this tournament are no longer the preserve of the pubs and wine bars, they are also the hot topic in the cafés where lattes and cappuccinos are being sweetened with memories of the performances against New Zealand and England in the Rugby World Cup back in November.

"I think there is a greater sense of anticipation around," Hansen said. "For once in my time in charge there's things happening that warrant people getting excited. We have just come off a campaign which has seen us confirmed as one of the top eight sides in the world - a great achievement for us since a lot of people doubted we would do it.

"Then there were those two great performances, albeit not winning ones, so people have something they can relate to, which makes them excited, whereas in the past any excitement has been based on Wales' history in the tournament."

Whether the personnel Hansen has selected will be able to ensure that Wales do not become history in this year's championship remains to be seen, but they are up against a lot of unknowns with this Scotland side. There are new players, a new captain, Chris Paterson, and tellingly, a new coach, Australian Matt Williams.

Right away he admitted that Wales are favourites, not least because of their World Cup performances. "It is right they are favourites, but I am a great believer that the national team represents the character of the country," and with unashamed echoes of Braveheart (featuring another Australian, Mel Gibson) he explained: "The Scots have always been great inventors. We have a warrior, soldier, fighter tradition and that is what I want.

"If we get our players playing with passion and pride against Wales, then the scoreboard will look after itself." But if it doesn't, then Williams is pragmatic. "We will never be happy with defeat. It is never all right to lose, and every single time we walk on to the field we will try our best to win, but it is unrealistic to expect this young side to win every game."

The selection of Paterson at fly-half, a position he has filled just twice for his country - against Fiji and Australia in last year's World Cup - is not something that worries Williams unduly. He compares the Edinburgh player to the Wallaby Steven Larkham, who was successfully converted from full-back to outside half. "Quality players can play in a variety of positions," Williams said, "and Chris is going to get better and better."

Wales will certainly not find things easy, not least because the Scots have a tasty pairing in the second row, the acknowledged master ball-burglar, Scott Murray, teaming up with Stuart Grimes; the outcome could well hinge on the contest they have with Wales' old warhorse, Gareth Llewellyn, and his partner Brent Cockbain.

The back row is another area that will be crucial. The Scots have the immensely talented back-row forward Simon Taylor and the seasoned Cammie Mather to ease the debutant Allister Hogg through what will be a tough test.

The Tartan trio will have to counter the fire and the fury of the Wales captain, Colin Charvis, the canny Cardiff Blues openside, Martyn Williams, and the feisty and gifted Dafydd Jones.

This last has to overcome a personal battle before he even takes the field. Jones has been picked at No 8, but he is superstitious about wearing the number. "I have worn the eight shirt before and nothing happened, but I just don't feel comfortable with it on my back. I just prefer No 6," Jones said, by way of explanation.

In addition to their traditional positional numbers on their backs, the Scots will also have, somewhere about their person, another number which says whether they are the 974th or the 975th, whatever, player to be capped by their country. With so many figures flying around, there promises to be a lot of number crunching in Cardiff this afternoon.