London - Captain Sam Warburton, who has not played rugby since suffering a shoulder injury in November, hopes to be fit to lead Wales's defence of the Six Nations championship when they will be seeking an unprecedented third successive outright win.
Warburton suffered the nerve damage in their 30-26 defeat by Australia but said at the tournament's official launch on Wednesday that he hoped to be available when his team get the tournament underway against Italy in Cardiff on February 1.
“I think I am going to be available for selection but we might decide if it's better to play a club game first he said.”
Warburton, who also missed the final and decisive Test of the British and Irish Lions' series victory over Australia last year, said the target of three Six Nations titles in a row had been brought up as his team sat dejected in their Cardiff dressing room after suffering their eighth successive defeat at the hands of the Wallabies.
“Shaun Edwards (assistant coach) talked about three in a row after that Australia match,” he said.
“He said to look for positives and to go away and play ourselves into the squad for the Six Nations where we would have a chance to create history.”
Several teams have won two successive championship titles then taken a share of a third - before points difference was introduced to split teams finishing level - but nobody has completed an outright hat-trick.
The bookmakers are as unsure as anyone, with Wales the tightest of favourites at 2/1 ahead of England and France.
With away games against Ireland and England on the horizon, it looks a difficult challenge, especially in the light of Wales's continuing dire form against the southern hemisphere sides, but their incredible recent form in the world's oldest rugby tournament ensures they remain real contenders.
Their challenge takes place, again, against a backdrop of political in-fighting with the regional teams at loggerheads with the Welsh Rugby Union while also involved in constant negotiations about the future of the Heineken Cup.
Warburton, however, said that the players would be unaffected by the increasingly fractious arguments. “That all goes away when we are in the national camp,” he said.
“We all just buckle down and concentrate on the games ahead. We're all looking forward to the Six Nations - it's what we're measured on.”
England, since Clive Woodward revolutionised their outlook, like to compare themselves to the southern hemisphere sides. But following last year's 30-3 Cardiff humiliation that ended England's grand slam hopes and gave Wales the title, they too will have to find a way to become masters of their own neighbourhood first.
An encouraging November series despite the absence of a host of injured players showed that Stuart Lancaster is building a squad with some depth but they will have to hit the ground running when they open up away to France on Feb. 1 before travelling to Scotland a week later.
The French, still stinging from their bottom-place finish last season, can surely only improve, though their prospects might depend as much on the selection policy of coach Philippe Saint-Andre as the quality of the players at his disposal.
Ireland too, on the back of their agonising last-gasp November defeat against New Zealand, will expect to improve on last year's dismal championship that brought just one win.
“We achieved a lot of things we'd been working on with (new coach) Joe Schmidt in that game,” said captain Paul O'Connell, who missed the whole 2013 tournament with a back injury.
“It was a shame we didn't close out that match like we should have done but that has given us some confidence for this year.”
Scotland and Italy both enjoyed good 2013 tournaments with two wins each and a repeat of that would realistically represent success given the desperate shortage of players at their disposal. – Reuters