ENGLAND rugby legend Dean Richards is backing Wales to bounce back from their autumn whitewash woe as he predicts a wide open Six Nations tournament in 2013.
And the ex-number eight, who won a series in Australia with the Lions in 1989, tips Wales head coach Warren Gatland to thrive when he takes the tourists to face the Wallabies next summer.
Controversial coach Richards, who recently returned to the game as Newcastle boss after serving a three-year ban for his part in the ‘Bloodgate’ scandal while in charge at Harlequins, has warned England not to get too carried away despite their 38-21 battering of the All Blacks earlier this month.
And he believes Wales shouldn’t get too disheartened after losing four games at home to Argentina, Samoa, New Zealand and Australia in November and December.
“There are always peaks and troughs and there are reasons for that and I’m pretty sure Wales will be fine for the Six Nations,” Richards said.
Referring to England’s demolition of World Cup holders New Zealand, France’s 33-6 crushing of Australia and Ireland’s 46-24 annihilation of Argentina in recent weeks, he said: “People will probably make England the Six Nations favourites, purely because of them beating New Zealand.
“They played very, very well against the All Blacks but what you don’t know is – did they catch them on a bad day?
England had lost two games before that to Australia and South Africa, but it was a great result against the All Blacks, it really was.
“I think France are playing exceptionally well at the moment and Ireland are never a side to take lightly.”
Richards also advised against writing off the two sides who have recently been left scrabbling to avoid the wooden spoon.
"Everybody thinks the whipping boys will be Italy and Scotland as usual but that’s never really the case because they can spring a surprise,” he said.
Summing up, Richards, who won two Grand Slams in 1991 and 1992, said: “I don’t think there are any clear-cut favourites for the Six Nations this season – I think it’s pretty much wide open."
And the former Leicester coach, who led the Tigers to back-to-back Heineken Cup triumphs in 2001 and 2002, thinks the decision to give Gatland the Lions job for the Australia tour is a good one.
“It’s all about making sure you understand other cultures within the home unions and I think this is where Warren will do very well,” he said.
“I think he’ll create a bit of unity within the squad to have a common goal in terms of what you want to achieve and how you want to achieve it, as well as in terms of game style and executing it that way – I think he’ll do fine.”
Richards, who played in all three Tests when Scotland skipper Finlay Calder captained the Lions to a 2-1 series victory over the Wallabies 23 years ago, thinks it’s far too early to speculate about who will and won’t make Gatland’s squad.
But he did pick out three England forwards who have impressed him in the autumn internationals.
“I quite like Wasps second row Joe Launchbury who started for England, I thought he played exceptionally well as a young lad,” Richards said.
“Dan Cole (tighthead prop) had an outstanding autumn and I thought Tom Youngs (hooker) grew into his role very well.
“I thought against New Zealand he handled the scrum very well, his lineout throwing was fine and in the loose, he’s exceptionally good.
“A number of new guys did well from England’s perspective.
“But there’s a long way to go before the Lions. The form that’s being shown now has got to be shown in February and March.”