If the 2022 Guinness Six Nations were to end now, before rounds four and five could take place, I wonder what Wayne Pivac could look back on as worthwhile from the campaign to-date?
He may point to the fact that a number of experienced players being injured has allowed the next generation their first run of starts, but I’d counter that by saying they have been largely underwhelming on the whole, giving little cause for optimism when it comes to the 2023 World Cup and beyond.
Perhaps he’d say that the defence has been much improved over the last two games, but the fact it took a domination from Ireland to kick into life, and even then is far removed from the potent force it was under Shaun Edwards, is a disappointment. We’ve made fewer dominant tackles than the opposition in each game so far, and have won fewer turnovers than any side in the competition overall.
Or he might claim that beating Scotland and pushing England all the way at Twickenham constitutes success given the aforementioned missing players, when in reality it is relatively clear to most watching that it was an off-the-boil Scottish side struggling in poor weather, and an English side very much in a transition period.
In the end it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that this Six Nations campaign is on the road to nowhere for Wales, just 18 months out from the World Cup and after almost two-and-a-half years of Pivac being in charge.
If we lose to France and then beat Italy we might finish as high as third in the table, battling it out with Scotland and England on a points difference basis, but that third will be about as far off a Championship as it’s possible to be, with Ireland and particularly France miles ahead of this current Welsh squad having built a way of playing around the strengths of the players available to them.
Meanwhile under Pivac the men in red continue to look lost. Starting XVs are picked that wouldn’t look out of place in the Warren Gatland era of strong defence, kick-heavy and hard chasing direct rugby, but are being asked to play a fast-paced possession-based, expansive attacking game that they just aren’t suited too.
Even within that there is confusion as selections lurch from having a lightweight and mobile starting back row of Ellis Jenkins, Taine Basham and Aaron Wainwright, to a big and physical trio of Basham, Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau. On the bench there are attacking options such as Seb Davies, Jac Morgan or Callum Sheedy teamed up with defensive game managers such as Jon Davies.
Games are being won purely on the strength of individual resolve, and it’s becoming increasingly tiresome watching Wales play, especially for those of us who aren’t as invested in the results of the national team as others. I had hoped to see the side playing an exciting brand of attacking rugby under Pivac and it’s that which makes the squad’s current state so disappointing.
How to make the tournament worthwhile now? I think there are two avenues that can be taken.
Firstly, Pivac could be more a touch more pragmatic, you could say, in his tactical approach and bring the game plan back to basics. A straight-forward attacking structure based on two solid forward pods in the middle of the field, put forwards in at first receiver and run options off them, but if the attack goes nowhere early then drop into the pocket, kick long and pressure with a good chase.
It wouldn’t be the most easy on the eye, but it would be understandable when running with the more physical options of Wyn Jones, Ryan Elias, Will Rowlands, Ross Moriarty, Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins, Alex Cuthbert and Liam Williams in the starting XV.
Or the second avenue is to be more adventurous and give the current attacking style, with slightly less structure and more pace on the ball, a proper go. This starts with dramatically changing the team selection and making some big calls on experienced players with the tournament now done and dusted in terms of grand slams and titles.
A front row of Gareth Thomas/Rhys Carre, Dewi Lake and Dillon Lewis/Leon Brown is a starter in terms of improving ball carrying and, crucially, mobility among the forwards to get to breakdowns and secure the ball quicker. There would be a reduction in scrummaging ability, no doubt about it, but the introduction of Jones, Elias and Tomas Francis as a Welsh version of the South Africa bomb squad at 50 minutes would be a lift for the final part of the game.
In the back five forwards the selection of Seb Davies as a physical yet athletic option with a terrific offloading skillset at either lock or blindside would bring an expansion to the pack’s attacking capability, while there is also scope to go fully mobile in the back row with the trio of Jenkins, Morgan and Basham in the six, seven and eight jerseys, respectively, before bringing the likes of Moriarty off the bench.
Then into the backs there is an opportunity to overhaul the creativity process with the likes of Callum Sheedy or a called-up Jarrod Evans at 10 standing flat, bringing players on to the ball at pace, offering a running threat themselves and having the vision to introduce a varied attacking kicking game, being supported by Gareth Anscombe at full-back in a dual playmaking system.
Adding a called-up Scott Williams or Ben Thomas at 12 would be an alternative way of running the dual playmakers, or selecting Willis Halaholo as a real x-factor ball carrier to either guarantee gainline success and drag in defenders, or as a decoy option to create space out wide.
With two of Dan Biggar, Nick Tompkins and Liam Williams then ready to be introduced in the final quarter for their game management skills it displays a clear thinking through the 23 and allows Wales to adopt a style of play that appears to suit both the coaching styles of Pivac and Stephen Jones alongside the abilities of the next generation of international players coming through the professional club game.
It would be a huge ask to make these changes against grand slam hunting France, but it would be pointless to only introduce them against Italy, and would at least give a meaning to a Six Nations campaign that, the way things are going, will be an almost complete waste of time for the Welsh national team.
Harsh Dan. I generally love your thoughts, but I finally see where Pivac is going with this.
Perhaps it is a touch harsh, but I’m really struggling to see an end point of World Cup success beyond Owens, AWJ, Navidi, Tipuric, Faletau and North somehow all making to and through the tournament in good nick!