France will begin their quest to become the first side in six years to retain the Six Nations when they travel to perennial wooden spoon winners Italy on Sunday.

Les Blues ended a 12-year wait to get their hands back on the trophy last year, doing so in style as they claimed a Grand Slam with a perfect five wins from five.

Italy also ended last year's tournament on a high as they broke a 36-game losing run with victory in Wales and are now out to avoid finishing bottom for the first time since 2015.

While France may be reigning champions and in good form, Ireland are top of the world rankings and are many people's favourites to go one better than last year by finishing top.

Up first for Andy Farrell's Ireland side is a trip to Wales, who are in action for the first time since Warren Gatland replaced Wayne Pivac on the back of some alarming results last year.

England also have a new head coach in Steve Borthwick, who replaced Eddie Jones in December, with his first test a mouth-watering Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland.

Ahead of the opening round of action, Stats Perform previews each match with help from Opta.


WALES V IRELAND

FORM

Wales' loss to Italy was their third in a row in the Six Nations – only once since the start of 2008, at the end of their 2020 campaign, have they endured a longer winless run – but Gatland's return has provided fresh hope.

The Dragons won their last seven on the bounce in the championship under Gatland, who landed three Grand Slams in his previous 12-year spell in charge before stepping down in 2019.

Ireland have won seven of their past eight games in the tournament, winning the past three of those by margins of at least 17 points and conceding just one try in total.

However, the away team have not come out on top in any of the past nine Six Nations encounters between these sides, with the nations sharing four wins each over that period and one draw.


ONES TO WATCH

Wales are without the injured Leigh Halfpenny, meaning Liam Williams will start at full-back, but they have plenty of other familiar and experienced faces in their starting line-up – George North among them.

He is one try short of matching Shane Williams' record haul of 23 for Wales in the Six Nations, and behind only Brian O'Driscoll (26) of all players in the tournament's history.

Plenty of eyes will be on Johnny Sexton in what will be his final Six Nations campaign, but Ireland have many other players for Wales to concern themselves with.

James Lowe, returning from a calf injury that ruled him out of the November fixtures, will be looking to push on from last year when he finished level with Damian Penaud and Gabin Villiere as the joint-highest try scorer with three.

 

ENGLAND V SCOTLAND

FORM

Jones may have bowed out with the best win rate of any England head coach (73 per cent), but the Red Rose won just two of their final five home matches under the now-Australia boss – not since November 2008 have they had a longer winless run at Twickenham.

With former skipper Borthwick now at the helm as head coach, England are aiming to avoid losing their opening fixture in the tournament for a fourth year running, following a streak of five successive round-one wins.

Scotland have a far better recent record on the opening weekend than their opponents, having won four of their past six such matches, including the past two in a row – both against England.

Indeed, Scotland have lost just one of their past five Calcutta Cup clashes, having lost each of the previous seven. A victory on enemy territory this weekend will make it three wins in a row for the first time since 1972.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Manu Tuilagi's absence will be felt by England, who have handed a debut to wing Ollie Hassell-Collins, but Joe Marchant will add pace alongside exciting Harlequins team-mate Marcus Smith.

Smith was the top points-scorer in last year's Six Nations (71) and also registered over twice as many running metres as any other fly-half in the tournament (412), as well as beating more defenders than anyone other number 10 (10).

Hamish Watson is not ready for a return to the Scotland side this weekend in a blow for coach Gregor Townsend. The 31-year-old was one of just three players to make 50 or more tackles without missing one in the 2022 edition (70), along with team-mate Grant Gilchrist and Ireland's Caelan Doris (both 53).

Gilchrist is available, though, and he resumes a partnership with Richie Gray in the second row that impressed during Scotland's November internationals.

 

ITALY V FRANCE

FORM

The signs of improvement were clear to see from an Italy perspective in 2022 as they picked up a first win in the tournament since 2015 and then beat Australia for the first time ever in November's Test.

The Azzurri have now won five of their past seven Tests, as many as they had won in their previous 36 combined, but they have not won at home in the Six Nations since 2013 and have won back-to-back games in the championship just twice previously.

France enter the competition boasting a team-record 13-match winning run after winning every game in a calendar year for the first time in 2022. They were not always at their best towards the end of the year, though, with three of their past four wins coming by margins of five points or fewer.

Les Blues have won their opening match in each of their past four campaigns as reigning champions, which does not bode well for an Italy side who have won only two of their 23 Six Nations home matches against this weekend's opponents.

 

ONES TO WATCH

Italy are without the pace and power of Monty Ioane after he returned to Australia and became unavailable for selection in this championship. No player made more line breaks (seven), beat more defenders (21), completed more offloads (eight) and made more dominant tackles (seven) than Ioane in last year's Six Nations.

The Azzurri still have Pierre Bruno and Ange Capuozzo at their disposal, with the latter impressing on his tournament bow in 2022 en route to winning World Rugby's men's Breakthrough Player of the Year award.

Even with the likes of regular starters Jonathan Danty and Cameron Woki ruled out, France still boast a number of top-class talents in their squad.

Gregory Alldritt, who will combine with Charles Ollivon and Anthony Jelonch in the back row, made more carries than any other player in last year's tournament (65) and was one of two players, along with team-mate Julien Marchand (50), to hit 50 or more defensive rucks with 59.

 

Andy Farrell has been able to call on Johnny Sexton to captain Ireland in their Six Nations opener against Wales on Saturday.

Sexton, who is set to participate in his final Six Nations ahead of retirement later this year, was a doubt for the tournament after undergoing surgery on a cheek injury last month.

But the 37-year-old has recovered and was named skipper for the clash at the Principality Stadium, where the roof will be closed at Ireland's request.

Jamison Gibson-Park will partner Sexton in the backs.

Prop Tadhg Furlong is not fit to play due to a calf injury, with Finlay Bealham starting in his place, while Robbie Henshaw is also absent.

Stuart McCloskey has been picked ahead of Bundee Aki in Henshaw's position and is set for his first Six Nations appearance since 2016.

There was bad news for Wales on the injury front on Wednesday, with Leigh Halfpenny – who had been given the nod at full-back by Warren Gatland – withdrawing after suffering a back spasm.

Liam Williams will start in Halfpenny's stead, despite concerns over his own fitness after a string of injuries.

Ireland team: Hugo Keenan, Mack Hansen, Garry Ringrose, Stuart McCloskey, James Lowe, Johnny Sexton, Jamison Gibson Park; Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Finlay Bealham, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan, Peter O'Mahony, Josh van der Flier, Caelan Doris.

Replacements: Rob Herring, Cian Healy, Tom O'Toole, Iain Henderson, Jack Conan, Conor Murray, Ross Byrne, Bundee Aki.

The 2022 Six Nations may have proved to be a battle between the haves (France and Ireland) and the have-nots (England, Scotland, Wales and Italy), but this year's tournament is expected to be a far tighter affair.

France ended a 12-year wait for the title last time around, while claiming a record-equalling fourth Grand Slam, and they will fancy their chances of coming out on top again this year ahead of hosting the Rugby World Cup in September.

Ireland, who narrowly missed out to Les Blues 11 months ago, will have plenty to say about that as they look to continue building the momentum that saw them record a famous series win over New Zealand and climb to the top of the world rankings.

Both nations, ranked as they are as the world's top two as we edge closer to the World Cup, will very much have a target on their backs as the other contenders look to lay down a marker.

It is a time of change for England and Wales, who have brought in Steve Borthwick and Warren Gatland respectively on the back of disappointing campaigns last time out, with this year's Six Nations representing a first opportunity to see their sides in action.

While Italy would often be a side note heading into the competition – justifiably given they have finished bottom in each of the past seven editions – they ended a long-running winless streak with victory over Wales last year, which they followed up with a win against Australia three months ago.

And don't forget Scotland, who themselves came close to a historic win against New Zealand in November and finished level on points with fierce rivals England in last year's Six Nations.

Unfavourable fixtures for France

France are looking to do something not achieved since England in 2017 in retaining the Six Nations title, while not since 1998 – prior to Italy joining to make it a six-team tournament – has a nation won successive Grand Slam crowns, with Les Blues themselves the last to do so.

Despite being reigning champions and in great form with 13 wins in a row, even those with strong French ties are wary of the threat a strong Ireland side pose.

"I don't want to downplay it at all, but we're not the best team in the world – Ireland are, and that's just a fact," 47-cap former France international Ben Keyser told Stats Perform.

"We are title holders, but we've fallen on our faces previously when we've entered the tournament as favourites. This year we've got to go to Ireland and England, so it's going to be a really tough year for France."

 

That trip to Irish capital Dublin in the second round may yet prove to be a showdown for the championship, as it was last year when the only blemish for Andy Farrell's men was a defeat in Paris.

It must be remembered, however, that Ireland were also top of the world rankings heading into the 2019 World Cup, when they suffered defeat to Japan in the pool phase before being knocked out by New Zealand in the quarter-finals.

 

'Wales way behind'

Before thoughts can turn to that huge match with France, and indeed the World Cup even further down the line, Ireland first have an away trip to Wales in what will present a chance to lay down a marker in their bid to land a first Six Nations title since 2018.

On the back of Gatland's shock return as Wales boss following the sacking of Wayne Pivac, though, all of a sudden Saturday's curtain-raising clash at the Principality Stadium looks nowhere near as clear-cut to predict.

"A month or two ago I'd have said that's going to be a tough one because it's Cardiff, but Wales are in a bit of disarray and it's hard to see how they're going to beat this Ireland," former Ireland and British and Irish Lions hooker Rory Best told Stats Perform.

"But all of a sudden there's a change at the helm and all of a sudden you're a lot more worried about this game in Cardiff. You know their style of play and you know Gatland will make them hard to beat. That makes this a potential banana skin for Ireland."

Former Ireland boss Gatland needs no introducing, having won the Six Nations four times during his previous 12-year stint in charge of Wales, three of those as Grand Slam winners.

Indeed, he has been involved in 60 Six Nations games during his time with Ireland and Wales, which is the same tally as the other five head coaches in this year's championship combined.

 

That experience and ability to get the best out of a squad will come in handy for Wales as they attempt to recover from a terrible 2022 that saw them lose at home to Italy and Georgia.

Making the leap from fifth to first is likely to be out of the question, but exactly what would represent a positive campaign for Wales with one eye on the upcoming World Cup?

"Third. Coming third would be good," Wales great and former skipper Sam Warburton told Stats Perform. "That sounds really defeatist because normally you'd always aim to win it, or finish second, but I'm being realistic.

"Ireland and France are putting on displays which have had four or five years of groundwork. Wales are coming into the tournament not entirely fresh, but pretty close to that. So naturally they're way behind where those teams are in their cycle."

 

Borthwick to get the best out of England?

Finishing third would be a case of 'best of the rest' when up against the world's top two sides, but recently appointed England head coach Borthwick will quietly be hoping to challenge for the title.

Unlike Gatland, this will be Borthwick's first taste of Six Nations action as a head coach, though he did play 25 times in the championship as a player, 10 of those as captain of his country.

While Eddie Jones' tenure turned sour, his sacking on the back of a tough autumn campaign still came as somewhat of a surprise, but the now-Australia boss still departed with the best record of any England head coach.

 

Indeed, Jones won the Grand Slam in his first Six Nations campaign in charge in 2016, so there is recent precedent there for Borthwick – who previously worked as Jones' right-hand man – to follow.

In the view of former captain Chris Robshaw, the Red Rose have plenty to be optimistic about with Borthwick at the helm.

"Steve coming in is a brilliant appointment," Robshaw told Stats Perform. "You just look at the team he's created around him, such as Kevin Sinfield in defence, and the change in mindset. 

"I think they've got a fantastic team and a group that's in a nice age bracket, with a couple of younger players who can add some spark and bring some life back into the side. What I'm seeing and hearing are good messages with a lot of excitement."

 

'Toughest Six Nations yet'

Not for the first time, Scotland head into the Six Nations with a rather big question mark over their head. As ever, consistency will be the key if they are to better last year's fourth-place finish.

The additions of Ben Healy and Ruaridh McConnochie, who previously represented Ireland and England respectively, will provide some welcome depth for Gregor Townsend to choose from in possibly his final campaign in charge.

Both men may feature in a blockbuster opener for Scotland at Twickenham, where they picked up a first win since 1983 on their most recent visit, albeit with that game held behind closed doors due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saturday's Calcutta Cup contest may well provide a better indication of exactly what the aim is for Scotland this time around.

 

"You never really know what to expect from them and that's exciting," Robshaw added. "That's why the Six Nations is brilliant, because anyone can beat anyone. It's why every day you have to be on it; if you're not you lose a game by the bounce of a ball and all of a sudden you're playing catch up.

"I think this year is going to be the toughest Six Nations yet. I don't think it'll be a Grand Slam year."

Robshaw will certainly not be alone in predicting a non-Grand Slam year, with teams expected to take points off each other, but what about at the other end of the table?

Perennial Wooden Spoon 'winners' Italy have finished bottom in every edition since 2016, but their aforementioned wins over Wales – ending a 36-game losing run in the competition – and Australia last year sent out quite the message.

Having avoided losing all five games for the first time in seven years last time around, the aim for the Azzurri now is to finish above one of the other five nations.

It all paves the way for what could be the best Six Nations in a number of years – certainly since the most recent World Cup – as new eras begin and some perhaps edge towards their pinnacle ahead of the Rugby World Cup in seven months' time.

Leigh Halfpenny is set to start for Wales in the Six Nations opener against Ireland on Saturday as Liam Williams missed out.

Halfpenny has been given the nod at full-back for the first match of Warren Gatland's second spell as Wales head coach at the Principality Stadium.

The 35-year-old will be monitored after sitting out training on Tuesday morning due to a hip issue, but is in line to make his first international start since 2021.

Williams will play no part in Cardiff this weekend as he builds up his fitness after being sidelined by injuries.

Centre Joe Hawkins will make his Six Nations debut at inside centre partnering George North in midfield after making his Test bow against Australia last year.

Dan Biggar returns at fly-half, with Tomos Williams starting at scrum-half against the top-ranked side in the world. 

Asked about Halfpenny's selection and the absence of Liam Williams, Gatland said: "He [Williams] trained today.

"Leigh Halfpenny has a little bit of a tight hip, so we kept him out of this morning's session. He'll train this afternoon so just making sure he didn't double up on that.

"Liam hasn't had a lot of rugby. He had the knock and then the finger injury, so he didn't take part in training last week. We just want to give him some more training time with the team.

"Obviously, if something does happen to Leigh, we'll make a decision with what happens to that. We had everyone fit and available for selection, but we had some players with bumps and knocks who didn't take part in training last week.

"That was some of our thinking there. We just want some more training time under his belt. There's no doubt Liam will feature at some point."

 

Wales team: Leigh Halfpenny, Josh Adams, George North, Joe Hawkins, Rio Dyer, Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Gareth Thomas, Ken Owens, Tomas Francis, Adam Beard, Alun Wyn Jones, Jac Morgan, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.

Replacements: Scott Baldwin, Rhys Carre, Dillon Lewis, Dafydd Jenkins, Tommy Reffell, Rhys Webb, Owen Williams, Alex Cuthbert.

Gareth Bale has wasted no time in grabbing the golf clubs after his retirement, announcing his participation in the upcoming Pebble Beach Pro-Am.

The former Tottenham, Real Madrid and Wales player stepped away from football earlier this month following his participation at the 2022 World Cup, bringing an end to a glittering career that included winning five Champions League titles.

The 33-year-old confirmed on social media that he will be lining up alongside professionals and other celebrities at the golf event in California, which begins on February 2.

Bale wrote: "Delighted to announce I will be playing in the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am at the start of next month! Let's go."

It will surprise few given Bale's renowned love of golf, famously drawing the ire of Real Madrid fans when he posed with a flag while on international duty that read: "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order."

Other confirmed celebrities for the tournament so far include actors Bill Murray and Jason Bateman, as well as Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

Ken Owens will captain Wales in the Six Nations and Warren Gatland has included four uncapped players in his 37-man squad.

Hooker Owens takes over as skipper from Justin Tipuric, who led the side for the Autumn Nations Series encounters last year.

The fit-again Wyn Jones, Dewi Lake and Liam Williams return in Gatland's first squad since he returned for a second spell as head coach, replacing the sacked Wayne Pivac.

New Zealander Gatland has recalled Leon Brown, Rhys Carre, Rhys Patchell, Aaron Wainwright, Rhys Webb and Owen Williams.

The uncapped Rhys Davies, Keiran Williams, Mason Grady and Teddy Williams also got the nod, while Rio Dyer, Joe Hawkins and Dafydd Jenkins are in line to make their Six Nations debuts.

Gatland said of naming Owens as captain: "Ken's incredibly experienced and a passionate Welshman – it means a lot to him to play for Wales. He's also very popular with the players.

"He came back from injury and was absolutely outstanding during the autumn campaign. Probably, if you're picking a team at the moment he's the number one in that position. But he's going to have some competition with Dewi and Bradley [Roberts] as well, which is going to be great."

Gatland has completed his coaching team by appointing Jonathan Thomas, who will take responsibility for the contact area.

Wales face Ireland at the Principality Stadium in their first match of the tournament at the Principality Stadium on February 4.

 

Wales Six Nations squad:

Forwards: Rhys Carre, Wyn Jones, Gareth Thomas, Dewi Lake, Ken Owens (captain), Bradley Roberts, Leon Brown, Tomas Francis, Dillon Lewis, Adam Beard, Rhys Davies, Dafydd Jenkins, Alun Wyn Jones, Teddy Williams, Taulupe Faletau, Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Justin Tipuric, Christ Tshiunza, Aaron Wainwright.

Backs: Kieran Hardy, Rhys Webb, Tomos Williams, Dan Biggar, Rhys Patchell, Owen Williams, Mason Grady, Joe Hawkins, George North, Nick Tompkins, Keiran Williams, Josh Adams, Alex Cuthbert, Rio Dyer, Leigh Halfpenny, Louis Rees-Zammit, Liam Williams.

Wales head coach Warren Gatland has added Alex King and Mike Forshaw to his backroom staff ahead of the Six Nations.

Former England fly-half King has been appointed as attack coach, with Forshaw named defence coach by Gatland.

King was Wales' attack coach during the 2017 Six Nations while Gatland was on secondment with the British and Irish Lions. He was most recently working with Premiership side Gloucester.

Forshaw arrives from Sale Sharks, with the duo joining forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys and skills coach Neil Jenkins on Gatland's team.

They have replaced Stephen Jones and Gethin Jenkins at the start of Gatland's second tenure after the New Zealander replaced sacked compatriot Wayne Pivac last month.

Wales face Ireland in the opening game of the Six Nations at the Principality Stadium on February 4.

"I'm delighted that Alex and Mike are joining the Wales coaching team," said Gatland.

"They both have plenty of experience as players and coaches, which will be hugely important to the development of the squad through the Six Nations and beyond. I'd like to thank Sale Sharks for their cooperation in the process and allowing Mike to take up this position with Wales.

"We have less than a month to our first Six Nations match against the number one side in the world which, as I've said before, is a great challenge to have first up and one that we are very excited about as a coaching group.

"Having our first match this championship at home will be very special and I'm really looking forward to getting back out at Principality Stadium in front of the best fans in rugby."

Tom Curry has sustained a hamstring tear that will keep him out of England's first two Six Nations matches, but he is set to be in contention for the clash with Wales at the end of February.

Curry, who captained England for the first time in last year's championship, injured his right leg in a tackle in the first half of Sale Sharks' win against Harlequins on Sunday.

With Steve Borthwick taking charge of England for the first time in their February 4 opener against Scotland, the injury left Curry little time to recover.

Sale director of rugby Alex Sanderson confirmed Curry would miss that match and the subsequent meeting with Italy, but the setback could have been worse.

"It's not as bad as we thought," Sanderson said. "A [grade] 3c [tear] would have been six to eight weeks, and he would have been looking to play at the back end of the Six Nations.

"With it being a 2c and Tom being very diligent on his rehab, it means he could be back for Wales."

England visit Wales for their first away match of the campaign on February 25.

Gareth Bale's retirement announcement sparking a new wave of golf-related jokes and memes was par for the course – he might not have expected Pep Guardiola to chip in, though.

The Wales great confirmed on Monday his career in professional football has come to an end after representing his country at the 2022 World Cup.

Despite his brilliance as footballer over the years, it is certainly not the only sport Bale is closely associated with.

During his time in Madrid, Bale's penchant for taking to the golf course while injured began to tee Los Blancos fans off, and former player Predrag Mijatovic once suggested the Welshman's priorities were "Wales, then golf, and after that, Real Madrid".

Wales fans subsequently turned it into a chant and slogan, with Bale even among the players holding a flag that read "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" as the team celebrated reaching Euro 2020.

Ever since, it has been a running joke largely used to poke fun at Madrid, and Guardiola – while paying tribute to the 33-year-old – made the most of a gimme opportunity with a quip of his own.

When first asked if he had ever tried to sign Bale, Guardiola said with a grin: "Too expensive.

"What a player. Fantastic career, won a lot of things, and I think he represented Wales and won more than 100 caps.

"And now he will become a fantastic golf player."

While Guardiola may not have ever invited Bale to join him at Manchester City, Bayern Munich or Barcelona despite occasional links, it seems he did approach him about hitting the course.

Bale's unavailability then meant they were unable to iron out the details, but he appears likely to get another offer soon.

Guardiola added: "He was busy, but now maybe he has time, I will invite him again."

Gareth Bale's decision to retire from professional football comes at the "right time", according to Wales manager Rob Page.

Bale announced on Monday he had decided to call time on a glorious career, having finally been able to represent his country at the World Cup.

Once the most expensive player of all time when he made the move to Real Madrid from Tottenham, Bale won everything possible during his time at the Santiago Bernabeu, including five Champions League titles – only Paco Gento (six) has more (Champions League/European Cup).

While some might have been surprised by Bale's decision given he is still only 33, his decline over the past few years – partly due to injuries – has been significant, as evidenced by his MLS struggles with Los Angeles FC and a lack of impact for Wales at Qatar 2022.

Page was not among those caught off guard by the news.

"Gareth messaged to say he needed a conversation," Page told BBC Radio Wales.

"I knew it was something significant, but when he announced it to me, it didn't come as a complete surprise.

"I told him I think it's the right time to bow out. You've just scored in a World Cup and got everything on your CV, what you've done for this country is unbelievable."

Wales' next fixtures are at the end of March when they face Croatia and Latvia to begin their Euro 2024 qualification campaign.

Page had planned to include Bale in his squad, though he recognised the World Cup did highlight certain inadequacies.

"He would have had a part to play," Page continued. "The roles might have changed slightly. Would he be able to play 90 minutes back to back?

"Lessons have been learned from Qatar, the athleticism every team had out there. It's too big an ask probably for him, he might have been an impact player coming off the bench.

"There's a mixture of emotions for me. I'm excited now because it's an opportunity to get some of the young ones through – players like Brennan Johnson to take the opportunity and step up to the plate – and get the next Gareth Bale.

"But there's also a hint of sadness because it's the last time we'll see Gareth Bale putting a pair of boots on for Wales."

But that is not to say Bale will be gone for good.

It remains to be seen what he goes on to do now he is not playing, but Page is eager to get Bale involved in the Wales setup again.

"I would love him still to be involved in some capacity, what that role is don't know yet," he said.

"It's a big adjustment for him, going into a normalish life, but we'll have another conversation with him in a few weeks.

"We'll make a plan moving forward because he's got so much to offer in a changing room and hotel environment.

"His presence is something I would be really keen on, to keep him involved, but I'll leave it up to Gareth and what suits him and his family.

"You've seen Belgium do it with Thierry Henry. Ex-players stepping up, whether it's a coaching role, an ambassadorial role, or being part of a committee making decisions.

"I'm sure the FAW [Football Association of Wales] would also be keen to keep Gareth involved in some capacity."

Real Madrid have paid tribute to former superstar Gareth Bale after the Wales international called an end to his playing career on Monday.

Bale joined Madrid from Tottenham in 2013 and spent nine years in Spain, albeit he headed back to Spurs on loan in 2020-21.

The 33-year-old won three LaLiga titles, a Copa dey Rey, five Champions League titles and three Club World Cups in his time at the Santiago Bernabeu.

He was not always universally popular with the fans despite scoring 106 goals in 258 games for the club, particularly after being pictured with a flag while on international duty that read: "Wales, golf, Madrid. In that order."

However, having left the Spanish capital for Los Angeles FC in Major League Soccer in June, Los Blancos posted a statement on their website on Monday to celebrate their former forward.

"Following Gareth Bale's announcement that he will retire from professional football, Real Madrid C. F. would like to express its gratitude, admiration and affection for a true legend of our club and the world game," it read.

"Gareth Bale was part of our team during one of the most successful periods in our history. He will long be remembered for his involvement in some of the most remarkable moments of the past decade, including his unforgettable run in the 2014 Copa del Rey final in Valencia [v Barcelona], his crucial goal in the 2014 Champions League final in Lisbon [v Atletico Madrid], and his brace in the 2018 Champions League final in Kyiv [v Liverpool], most notably the bicycle kick which will live forever in the minds of football lovers around the globe.

"His name will be forever bound to our club's history and its legend.

"Good luck, Gareth, and all the best to you and your family."

Gareth Bale has brought an end to an illustrious playing career after announcing his retirement at the age of 33.

The forward hangs up his boots with a record of 226 goals in 664 games from spells with Southampton, Tottenham, Real Madrid, Los Angeles FC and on the international stage with Wales.

Initially a left-back, Bale was utilised further forward by Harry Redknapp at Spurs which sparked the start of an incredible transformation of the player – who would go on to make a significant impression at both club and international level.

Here, we've taken a look back at some of the finest moments from Bale's career.

San Siro statement

On October 20, 2010, Bale gave Tottenham fans memories to last a lifetime with a stunning hat-trick in a Champions League group stage fixture against Inter at San Siro in a year that marked Spurs' first-ever involvement in the competition.

Four goals down at half-time and down to 10 men, Bale enjoyed a meteoric display in the second period that, despite Spurs losing 4-3, still stands as one of the greatest individual performances in the competition's history.

A hat-trick saw the then 21-year-old display his raw pace and strength, tormenting opposing players Maicon and Javier Zanetti, propelling him into stardom and setting the path for a remarkable career.

World record transfer & Copa del Rey Clasico

A six-year spell in north London came to a close in 2013, when Real Madrid splashed a then world record fee of €100.8 million (£85.1m), a figure that surpassed the previous record set by Cristiano Ronaldo's move to Santiago Bernabeu from Manchester United.

Scoring on his debut against Villarreal, the first half of Bale's inaugural season in Spain was plagued by injuries and came alongside some media criticism – something that he would have to endure throughout the majority of his spell with Los Blancos.

A starring moment came in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, however, outsprinting Marc Barta and even exiting the field on his way to goal before tucking home his first El Clasico strike.

Champions League glories

Just over a month after scoring in the Copa del Rey final, Bale was at it again in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid – putting his team ahead in the 110th minute of an eventual 4-1 victory to seal Madrid's 10th European Cup, the fabled La Decima.

In 2015-16, Bale won the Champions League for a second time, Atletico on the receiving end yet again, retaining the trophy the following season against Juventus in his home city of Cardiff, and winning a third in a row in 2017-18, where Bale added to his incredible highlight reel.

Against Liverpool in Kyiv, Bale scored an overhead kick from the edge of the 18-yard box to give Madrid a 2-1 advantage, then doubling his tally for the game with a speculative 30-yard effort that goalkeeper Loris Karius fumbled into the net.

Euro semi-finalists

While criticism at club level with Madrid was rife, Bale continued to be the leading man on the international stage for Wales and excelled for his nation at Euro 2016, the first time they had featured at the tournament.

Bale scored in all three of Wales' group-stage matches against Slovakia, England and Russia as Chris Coleman's side topped the group, with victories against Northern Ireland and Belgium to follow in the knockout stage.

An incredible tournament came to a close in the semi-finals with a 2-0 defeat to eventual champions Portugal but Wales returned five years later at the rearranged Euro 2020, where they reached the last 16.

MLS Cup victory

Bale's Madrid career ended in June 2022, fresh from picking up a fifth Champions League victory, as he completed a move to Major League Soccer to join Los Angeles FC.

LAFC won the Supporter's Shield in the regular season, though Bale was mostly unused, but he made his impact in the MLS Cup as his side won the title for the first time, having joined the league in 2017.

Bale came off the bench to score in the 128th minute against Philadelphia Union, sending the contest to a penalty shoot-out that LAFC subsequently won.

World Cup

After a 64-year absence, Wales returned to the World Cup stage after qualifying for the 2022 tournament in Qatar – which would prove to be Bale's last involvement as a player for either club or country.

An 82nd-minute penalty against the United States saw Bale score on his tournament debut as Wales begun the group stage with a point, but two stoppage-time goals in the second game gave Iran a shock victory.

Wales' campaign came to an early end with a 3-0 defeat to England in the final group match, marking a disappointing end to Bale's international career.  

Gareth Bale announced his retirement on Monday, bringing an end to a trophy-laden and eventful career spanning 17 seasons.

Southampton product Bale made a name for himself at Tottenham, but it was in nine years at Real Madrid he truly rose to stardom – although he had a turbulent time in the Spanish capital.

Despite playing starring roles in two Champions League finals and winning 16 trophies, Bale's time in Madrid turned sour long before he departed last June.

The versatile attacker famously paraded with a banner that read "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" in 2019 and that understandably did not go down well with Los Blancos fans.

Playing time continued to be limited at Los Angeles FC, but Bale scored an extra-time leveller in the MLS Cup final against Philadelphia Union, which his side won on penalties.

Yet for all his success at club level, it was arguably with Wales that Bale enjoyed his proudest moments, not least reaching the semi-finals of Euro 2016.

Bale also played a huge part in ending Wales' 64-year wait to qualify for the World Cup last year, with their group defeat to England proving to be his final game as a professional.

As the curtain comes down on Bale's playing days at the age of just 33, Stats Perform breaks down the numbers from a remarkable career.

Bale played 664 matches for club and country and scored 226 goals, the majority of those unsurprisingly coming for Madrid (106).

He also netted 41 times in 111 games for Wales, becoming his country's record goalscorer and cap holder in the process.

The Cardiff-born forward also netted five goals for Southampton and three for LAFC at either end of his career, while bagging 71 in 237 matches for Tottenham.

It was his superb form for Spurs, particularly in the 2012-13 season, that saw Bale make a then-record €100.8million (£85.1m) switch to Madrid.

That would prove to be Bale's best season in terms of goals as he netted 21, nine of those from outside the box in the Premier League – a single-season record that still stands.

Add his four assists into the mix and only Robin van Persie (35) and Luis Suarez (28) played a direct part in more goals than Bale's 25 during that campaign.

As impressive as Bale was for Spurs, though, he did not have any silverware to show for it. That would all soon change at the Santiago Bernabeu.

He is the only player to score a match-winning goal in two Champions League finals, doing so in 2013-14 against Atletico Madrid and in 2017-18 to break Liverpool's hearts.

Bale scored twice against Liverpool, aided by a horror shown from Loris Karius, making him the first substitute to score more than once in a single Champions League final.

Those three combined final goals are second only to Cristiano Ronaldo (four), who it is fair to say will be far better remembered by Madrid supporters than Bale.

While his part in some of Madrid's triumphs in more recent seasons was limited, Bale does at least deserve his place in club folklore.

His 258 appearances for Los Blancos are more than the likes of Luis Figo (245) and Zinedine Zidane (227) made, and just short of the great Ferenc Puskas' tally of 262.

Furthermore, Bale is one of only 22 players in Madrid's esteemed history to have reach the 100-goal mark, his 106 strikes more than Brazil legend Ronaldo (104) managed.

Wales legend Gareth Bale has announced his retirement at the age of 33.

Bale confirmed his decision in a statement on Instagram on Monday, saying he has taken an “opportunity for a new adventure."

The former Southampton, Tottenham, Real Madrid and Los Angeles FC forward called time on a 17-year playing career, in which his honours included three LaLiga titles, the Champions League five times and the Club World Cup on three occasions.

Bale’s final appearance came in 3-0 defeat to England as Wales were knocked out of the group stage of the World Cup in Qatar.

He posted on Instagram: "After careful and thoughtful consideration, I announce my immediate retirement from club and international football.

"I feel incredibly fortunate to have realised my dream of playing the sport I love. It has truly given me some of the best moments of my life. The highest of highs over 17 seasons, that will be impossible to replicate, no matter what the next chapter has in store for me.

"From my very first touch at Southampton to my last with LAFC and everything in between, shaped a club career that I have an immense pride and gratitude for. Playing for and captaining my country 111 times has truly been a dream come true.

"To show my gratitude to all of those that have played their part along this journey, feels like an impossibility. I feel indebted to many people for helping to change my life and shape my career in a way I couldn’t have ever dreamed of when I first started out at 9 years old.

"To my previous clubs, Southampton, Tottenham, Real Madrid and finally LAFC. All of my previous managers and coaches, back room staff, team-mates, all the dedicated fans, my agents, my amazing friends and family, the impact you have had is immeasurable.

"My parents and my sister, without your dedication in those early days, without such a strong foundation, I wouldn't be writing this statement right now, so thank you for putting me on this path and for your unwavering support.

"My wife and my children, your love and support has carried me through. Right beside me for all the highs and lows, keeping me grounded along the way. You inspire me to be better, and to make you proud.

"So, I move on with anticipation to the next stage of my life. A time of change and transition, an opportunity for a new adventure…"

Bale began his career at Southampton before moving to Tottenham, where he spent six seasons and won two PFA Players' Player of the Year awards.

His exploits with Spurs earned him a blockbuster move to Madrid in 2013 for a reported fee of £77million (€91m).

Despite suffering injury issues and often struggling to emerge from Cristiano Ronaldo's shadow, Bale enjoyed some huge highs at the Santiago Bernabeu, including a spectacular winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, putting Los Blancos ahead against Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final and scoring twice against Liverpool to win the 2018 Champions League final.

Being pictured with a flag while on international duty that read ‘Wales, golf, Madrid. In that order' did not go down well with Madrid fans and Bale continued to suffer with injuries.

He left for a spell in Major League Soccer last June, winning the MLS Cup with LAFC on penalties after he equalised in the final against Philadelphia Union in the 128th minute.

Bale starred on the international stage, leading Wales to an improbable run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 as captain, as well as playing a key role in their qualification for the 2022 World Cup, the first they had participated in since 1958.

He finished his international career with 41 goals in 111 caps.

Wales legend Gareth Bale has announced his retirement at the age of 33.

Bale confirmed his decision in a statement on Instagram on Monday, saying he has taken an “opportunity for a new adventure."

The former Southampton, Tottenham, Real Madrid and Los Angeles FC forward called time on a 17-year playing career, in which his honours included three LaLiga titles, the Champions League five times and the Club World Cup on three occasions.

Bale’s final appearance came in 3-0 defeat to England as Wales were knocked out of the group stage of the World Cup in Qatar.

Page 1 of 19
© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.