Over the last few weeks we have seen Wales essentially try the same thing three times and come out comfortably second best three times. It’s the definition of insanity.
Wayne Pivac and his coaching staff will tell us consistently that they are trying to introduce a new game plan to a side that has played the same way for 12 years, and a game plan that hasn’t been tested at international level yet so is having to evolve to the different demands of that arena.
However at some point there has to be an acknowledgement that the game plan can only do so much. I think we have reached that point and that Pivac has to either change the game plan to suit the players he is picking, or pick players that suit his game plan.
If he opts for the first option then it comes with a change of shape. Running with three-man forward pods, bringing backs short of the half-backs, and then implementing some of his heads-up rugby but only when the platform has been gained through some hard and safe carrying. An exaggerated version of the rugby played during the last 18 months of the Warren Gatland era, if you like.
For me though, I’d like to see him stick with his game plan and start picking players who suit it as we started to build towards the 2023 Rugby World Cup. I firmly believe the talent is there to do that, but it will take some brave selection decisions.
Against Ireland the rough average age of the starting side was 28.3 years old. Players like Alun Wyn Jones, Will Rowlands, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau, Gareth Davies, Dan Biggar, Jon Davies, Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams will all be 32 or over by the time the tournament in France rolls around.
With the exception of Rowlands they have either spent all or a significant amount of their international careers working under Gatland, and it’s noticeable that many have struggled over the last few weeks in one way or another.
Wales haven’t had any sort of dynamic attack from the forwards or shown the skill level to play in the Stephen Jones attacking system we saw at Scarlets. The half-backs haven’t demonstrated the speed of ball or creativity required, and the outside backs haven’t displayed anything close to a cutting edge in their play.
This creates the current ‘circle of death’ that the team are stuck in. The forwards aren’t providing a platform, the half-backs aren’t able to get the ball moving towards the edge fast enough and the wider players aren’t able to ask questions of the defence which opens up space for the forwards to operate in within their smaller pods so they can’t provide a platform for the half-backs to get the ball moving, and so on and so forth.
So this is why I feel Pivac needs to shake up his team selection and start to call on players who can play the way he wants. He needs tight five forwards who are either top ball carriers, like Jake Ball or Rhys Carre, or have the skill level to play a bit, like Leon Brown or Seb Davies. In the back row he has to have a primary jackal option like a Josh Navidi, Ollie Griffiths, James Botham, Jac Morgan or Dan Thomas to effect the turnovers his side thrives on.
There is also a requirement for good ball players like Shane Lewis-Hughes, Aaron Wainwright or Taine Basham to be selected for their attacking prowess, as well as offering a secondary jackal option and giving you 15-20 tackles per game.
In the backs the half-backs have to be fast and able to play what’s in front of them. Tomos Williams and Kieran Hardy can fill the role at nine, while Callum Sheedy, Rhys Patchell and Jarrod Evans could have a superb battle for the 10 jersey, all able to be the key cog in the attacking machine that Pivac and Jones want to create.
Inside centre is generally a spot for a defensively solid player able to carry in a crash ball style, with the likes of Willis Halaholo, Owen Watkin and Johnny Williams all putting their hands up, while outside centre could be an area for experimentation. Nick Tompkins is the only out-and-out option currently, but the young talent of Kieran Williams is developing very nicely, while wingers Josh Adams, Owen Lane and Johnny McNicholl could all develop into possibilities if shown faith in.
McNicholl is also in the running for full-back where the player wearing 15 has the freedom to hit the attacking line and make an impact as he sees fit. He, or Liam Williams, can be that spark, while the wingers also have that freedom. To see Josh Adams, Louis Rees-Zammit, George North, Owen Lane, Steff Evans or Ashton Hewitt off their wings and causing problems all over the field would be a sight to behold.
Obviously there are a number of names not included in that spin through the squad who have been involved in the Wales setup for many years, but they’ve had three chances this Autumn and failed to take any of them so far.
This isn’t a pitch to name an experimental side or giving players a go, this is a pitch for fundamental change in the team selection. Picking the best players that suit the game plan we are aiming for under Wayne Pivac.
Is there an inexperience there that may take some time to adjust? Yes, there’s no question. At this point though that is the only way I see Wales becoming successful during the era of this coaching regime. Trying to teach old dogs new tricks isn’t working in the short-term and won’t offer any benefits in the long-term. Let’s make the brave changes now before it’s too late.