Wales’ 2020 autumn campaign probably won’t be one to look back on at any time in the future and reminisce over what great times they were. In fact, it may well be forgotten in a hurry.
With fans locked out and the Principality Stadium out of action, Wayne Pivac’s men struggled around a deathly silent Parc y Scarlets, failing to meet the challenge of Scotland in a Six Nations dead rubber and England in the uninspiring Autumn Nations Cup, as well as falling to France and Ireland at empty stadiums in Paris and Dublin, respectively.
Wins against Georgia and Italy mean any losing streaks are over and bookend the year nicely, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the last two months have been a real disappointment for Wales, and questions are rightly being asked.
Going into the autumn I was looking forward to seeing a development of the style of play that Wayne Pivac and Stephen Jones were looking to introduce in attack, with flashes shown during the first part of the Six Nations, as well as new faces being properly blooded with attention turning to the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Unfortunately, team selections have consistently baffled me as Pivac has stuck with a number of players of the previous era who are unwilling or unable to adapt to the new style, whether that’s due to inability to cut through player power, a sense of loyalty to players attempting to get on the Lions tour next summer, or pressure to get results. Whatever it is, it has done the new head coach no favours.
By selecting players without the skillset needed to play the faster and wider attacking style this new era will be under-pinned by, Wales have become stuck in a no-man’s land, looking disjointed and lost, with supporters left regularly questioning what the game plan is, or even if there is one.
The need to change the style of play was clear. To put it simply, we would never have won a World Cup playing the way Warren Gatland had us set up. It was just too attritional, and resulted in us getting knocked out in 2015 and 2019 due to having squads that were depleted by the quarter-final and semi-final stages.
It was always going to take time to shift the mentality after 12 years of rugby based on a strong defence, a good kicking game and physical carrying, without much creativity or the requirement to heads-up rugby. It was structured to within an inch of it’s life, relying on players putting their bodies on the line to put relentless pressure on the opposition.
What would speed that along though is selecting players that suited the new style, not picking players aged 29 or over who have spent their entire international careers playing one way and with little or no chance of taking the field in a Wales jersey at France 2023.
Would we still have lost to France, England and Ireland? Probably, but at least it would have been a development step for new faces in the squad. There could have been more flashes of the new game plan, and plenty of learning points going into the 2021 Six Nations during which we could have been competitive.
Where we find ourselves now is having seen the only flashes of the new game plan against Georgia and Italy. It has not gone up against either of three aforementioned sides, nor have many of the new faces or combinations that will take us forward over the next few years. The tight five at the scrum, the lineout, the back row defensively, the half-backs in attack, the centre partnership. None are settled.
Wayne Pivac’s style is untested, and worse, he has no idea what his best XV is. The upcoming Six Nations will still be about development, as will the summer tour during the Lions’ time in South Africa, so we will not be competitive until next autumn, and even that relies on the head coach’s team selection.
At the moment I am still just in the ‘give him more time’ camp. The attacking shape and variation in the last quarter against Italy, for example, gives great hope for what Wales can achieve. If February comes around and we’re still seeing Dan Biggar at fly-half, for example, I will be forced into the ‘Pivac out’ camp, and he will only have himself to blame if we once again struggle results-wise.
Players like Rhys Carre, Sam Parry, Dillon Lewis, Leon Brown, Seb Davies, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Ollie Griffiths, Tomos Williams, Callum Sheedy, Jarrod Evans, Rhys Patchell, Owen Watkin, Johnny Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit and Ioan Lloyd are the present and the future.
These are the selections that will ensure we are competitive in the short-term and develop on to 2023 under Pivac.