By Ben Lovell-Smith | Sport Editor
On November 1st 2019 after Wales had fallen to defeat to New Zealand in the third place play off at the Rugby World Cup, Warren Gatland handed over the reigns as Wales Head Coach to fellow Kiwi Wayne Pivac. A year has passed since then and a lot has changed.
With five defeats in six test matches, and a calamitous 5th place Six Nations finish, the appointment would appear to be a complete failure so far. The team inherited were reigning Grand Slam champions and had finished fourth at the Rugby World Cup and the majority of that team remained available.
A new approach under Wayne Pivac
Wayne Pivac was appointed coach off the back of his success as Scarlets head coach, where he coached alongside current Wales backs coach Stephen Jones and recently exiled defence coach Byron Hayward. In a matter of years Pivac’s side became one of the best sides the Welsh domestic game has seen, expressing an attacking flair that was a real throwback to the famous Welsh sides of the 1970s.
Pivac’s Scarlets team was a real breath of fresh air at the time. It directly contrasted with the pragmatic style of Gatland’s Wales, which was not so easy on the eye and was frequently denounced by the media as ‘Warren ball’. However, Gatland was undeniably effective. Under his watch Wales won three Grand Slams, four Six Nations titles and two World Cup semi-finals.
The appointment of Pivac represented an intention to break loose from the one dimensional mindset that had prevailed for over a decade. But after a year without Gatland Wales have already lost their winning touch. The attack has been undynamic and the defence has been porous. In their last four matches, Wales conceded 15 tries. Last year they only conceded seven tries in the whole Six Nations tournament.
In this respect it has been a disaster for Wales that Shaun Edwards was allowed to leave the set up. Now coaching the French defence, France immediately looked like a completely new side and only missed out on the Six Nations championship title on points difference. They combine a vibrant attack with a ruthless, determined and well organised defence. Exactly what Wales are trying to achieve.
Filling Edward’s metaphorical boots as defence coach was former Wales international Byron Hayward who had successful stints as U20 head coach and National Academy skills coach before joining the Scarlets as defence coach in 2014. After defensive frailties continued against Scotland and in advance of the beginning of the Autumn Nations Cup, Wayne Pivac elected to sack Hayward from his position.
The role of defence coach really is a poisoned chalice. If Wales are to succeed with this new attacking philosophy, it must be accepted that they will concede more points than under Edwards. Even in Scarlets’ defining Pro12 winning season, the side conceded an average of 16 points per match. Defence was mostly based on damage limitations within a philosophy of simply scoring more than the opposition. The attacking game is yet to develop under Wayne Pivac, but that could take years.
Time will tell
After all, no other Six Nations team, besides France, have had to face wholesale changes to the coaching set up this season. Adjusting to a new system takes time, especially after 12 years of the same set up. Pivac was not an instant success at the Scarlets. In his first two years in charge at Parc y Scarlets the Scarlets failed to make the playoffs. Finishing 6th and then 5th. It took time to achieve results. It was the following year they stormed to Pro 12 victory, thrashing Munster 46-22 in the final.
Pivac has also not had a completely fit squad yet. Jonathan Davies is only just coming back to fitness after a long lay off recovering from knee surgery. Whilst Liam Williams has not yet had a proper crack at the number 15 jersey under Pivac, and offers more of an attacking threat than Leigh Halfpenny. Both Davies and Williams were central to Pivac’s success at the Scarlets and Pivac will hope he can rely on them again at international level.
Steadily, a repertoire of youth is becoming available to Pivac too, and they could provide the shakeup that is dearly needed. 23 year-old Cardiff Blues flanker Shane Lewis-Hughes was given the start against Scotland, he looked dynamic and showed the intent to offload and move the ball that Wales are looking for. Nick Tompkins is electric and has settled nicely into the international stage and looks the obvious replacement for Jonathan Davies when the time comes. Whilst 19 year old wonderkids Louis Rees-Zammit and Ioan Lloyd have made the squad for the first time this year and have a really bright future within an attacking system.
The games come thick and fast for Wales, who have four Autumn internationals to come, starting with Ireland in Dublin tomorrow. Followed by Georgia, England and a final fixture still to be confirmed, all on consecutive weekends. It is imperative that the losing streak is broken.
The pressure is on for Pivac, but there is great talent in the squad as well as a good mix of youth and experience. History tells that if given time he can produce a devastatingly exciting and effective team, it is just whether Wales have the patience to entertain him.