When Wayne Pivac announced his Wales squad for the 2021 Guinness Six Nations this week he gave the impression of a man who is making it up as he goes along.
Back in November 2019, having named his first squad as head coach for a game with the Barbarians on the back of the Rugby World Cup, the New Zealander was quoted as saying “we are building towards 2023. We have looked at the boys’ performances at the World Cup this season. We looked at what we think we need to do to be able to knock off England, New Zealand or South Africa on a given day at a World Cup. I think it is going to be managing expectation early.”
That was a clear strategy to follow, and one which it was possible to get on board with. Yes there was success under Warren Gatland, but the simple truth of the matter is that we were never likely to progress further than a World Cup semi-final under him. Think of the injury list by the time we reached the knockout games with South Africa in 2015 and 2019. It was just too attritional.
So Pivac came in, along with attack coach Stephen Jones, having led the Scarlets to plenty of success over the previous few years playing an expansive and skill-based attacking and counter attacking game that would likely fair better in terms of avoiding injury and fatigue in the intense arena that is a World Cup.
Unfortunately in the intervening 15 months between that first squad announcement and now, the former policeman has ended up pepper spraying himself in the eyes and stumbling into a custody cell, locking himself inside in the process.
He has done neither one thing nor the other, not picking the best team available to him on form to secure results, and not placing his faith in players who will be in their prime in 2023, instead sticking with players who are approaching the end of their international careers, perhaps out of loyalty in an attempt to get them on the British and Irish Lions tour.
This squad selection is no different as Pivac packs his squad with contradictions. Rhodri Jones, Dan Lydiate and Hallam Amos are all preferred to Corey Domachowski, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Ioan Lloyd due to their experience, while Rhys Webb and Jamie Roberts are overlooked for Kieran Hardy and Johnny Williams, despite neither of the younger players showing any particular form in recent weeks.
Ken Owens and Josh Navidi are included despite having less than 30 minutes of rugby since early October due to injury, but there’s no sign of Willis Halaholo despite his return to fitness and strong showings against the Scarlets these last two weeks.
Now if Pivac had decided to pick a squad that was totally geared towards being properly competitive in this upcoming Six Nations I would not necessarily have agreed with it, but at least there would have been a strategy. Some evidence of coherent thinking and an element of control from the head coach.
What he should be doing, of course, is following the France model. After the 2019 World Cup the likes of Guilhem Guirado, Wenceslas Lauret, Bernard Le Roux, Louis Picamoles, Maxime Machenaud, Camille Lopez, Wesley Fofana, Yoann Huget and Maxime Medard have all been cast off into the international wilderness.
In their place the likes of Paul Willemse, Gregory Alldritt, Louis Carbonel, Mathieu Jalibert, Arthur Vincent and Anthony Bouthier have all come to prominence, putting them in good stead for their home World Cup in 2023.
Meanwhile in Wales there is no clear path to success in the short-term or success in 2023, with the squad selected neither the most in-form squad currently nor properly preparing for the World Cup. It has an average age of just over 27, with just seven players aged under 25 and 10 players aged 30 or over.
With a two-year break clause in his contract, which could be activated this summer as the contract technically started before the last World Cup, Pivac has now put a big marker over his head. With no planning for the 2023 World Cup you have to assume he’s picked a squad that he thinks can get results in the short-term after a disappointing Autumn.
Therefore, should he fail to get those results then he may well find himself out of a job by the time next Autumn rolls around. If that were to happen he can only have one thing to blame; himself.