Rewind 12 months and Wayne Pivac was in the middle of another autumn internationals series where results weren’t exactly going his way.
In the first international action since rugby returned following the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Wales suffered defeats at the hands of France, Scotland, Ireland and England, with plenty of discontent among supporters after a tough first Six Nations ahead of the virus hitting.
Inside the camp though, Pivac largely remained calm as he took the opportunity of an extended autumn campaign to properly get to grips with assessing his players and coaches, as well as implementing his evolved attacking game plan.
By the time Wales faced Italy in the final game of the window defence coach Brad Hayward was on his way out and the attacking game was fully firing as Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau teamed up to rip the Azzurri to shreds, a pre-cursor to a successful second Six Nations campaign where the Kiwi would coach his side to the title.
So now in the 2021 autumn internationals we are once again evolving. This time though, it’s playing personnel, rather than coaches or game plans, which are in the spotlight, as a number of new faces get serious game time or are introduced for their first experiences of the top level of test rugby.
The aforementioned Tipuric and Faletau are two of 10 stalwarts of the Welsh national team in recent years that are either injured or no longer available. They, alongside Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi, George North and Leigh Halfpenny, are consigned to watching from the stands, while Jake Ball and Cory Hill watch from their overseas homes outside of the 60-cap rule.
That is 789 combined Wales and British & Irish Lions test caps unavailable to Pivac, all of whom would conceivably be in line for selection for the 2023 Rugby World Cup if fit and inside the selection policy criteria.
As a result, whether it be planned or due to circumstance, this autumn has become about building depth in the player pool, both in terms of giving players who have up until this point been peripheral squad members regular game time, or introducing players to a matchday 23 for the first time.
Rhys Carre, Ryan Elias and Will Rowlands have started against one of the big three southern hemisphere sides for the first time, Taine Basham has started for Wales for the first time, Aaron Wainwright has started back-to-back games at number eight against tier one opposition for the first time, Johnny McNicholl has started at full-back for the first time.
Meanwhile Kirby Myhill, Bradley Roberts and WillGriff John have made their international debuts, and Ben Carter has won just his fourth cap, while the likes of Seb Davies, Ellis Jenkins and Rhys Priestland have made returns to the test level after differing lengths of time away.
Two years out from the World Cup it’s all great experience for these largely younger players to step up as first team options against the best sides in the world, and shares out the playing time among the squad so that hopefully, behind those 10 players with nearly 800 caps between them there are 30 players with 20+ caps, rather than 30 players who have less than 100 minutes of international game time each.
What we need to see for the rest of the autumn now is those players start to play the Pivac way. With a weakened side against New Zealand and then in difficult weather against South Africa the order of the day has essentially been trying to stay in each game as long as possible, particularly on Saturday against the Springboks.
However, with Fiji and Australia next up, and the weather for Sunday looking tentatively very good, there’s an opportunity for these fresh faces to really show what they’re capable, and Pivac to pick an exciting team filled with highly skilled players looking to make their mark on the international stage.
Across the last two weeks Jon Davies at outside centre has only got his hands on the ball to pass or carry a total of 10 times, but that could be surpassed in the first half alone on Sunday if the team selection is based on players able to play with freedom, speed and width.
It’s another autumn of building, but the peak isn’t too far away!