Wales’ 2022 Guinness Six Nations campaign was, to my eyes, an almost completely unmitigated disaster of a two months, leaving us in a precarious position 18 months out from the Rugby World Cup.
To many it seems they were shocked by last weekend’s loss at home to Italy, but I have to say I was not surprised in the slightest. That sort of performance has been brewing slowly since before Wayne Pivac took over as the national team head coach, and was accelerated after the round one loss to Ireland where the stark reality of the current play group hit.
Following that result in Dublin an excellent blog from Sei @CapS45, looking at the Welsh Rugby Union’s mis-management of the professional game in Wales over the last decade, summed up perfectly the amateur style governance that has led to this point, while I added my tuppence on the relatively easy fixes needed to recover the professional development pathway were the WRU a competent organisation.
Fast forward to this week and the national media has started concentrating on the WRU issue in detail, with a section of Gareth Griffiths’ BBC Sport piece looking at their governance, although not with any real conviction, while articles from Ben James and Simon Thomas through WalesOnline have broached the subject with more detail and accuracy.
It’s for this reason that not only was I not shocked about Wales losing on Saturday, but I was actually pleased to an extent, as a narrow loss would still have been enough to paper over the wider cracks in Welsh rugby’s governance, whereas now the issues are beginning to be pushed into the open. At least five years too late, and still with many being too ignorant or downright thick to understand, but they’re out there.
That is the all-important issue at the moment when it comes to where the national team is currently. We are still producing good players in this country, but others such as Ireland and France who have invested in a high level professional development pathway over a number of years are now producing better players and more of them, and as such are well out in front heading towards next year.
However, having said all that, Wayne Pivac and his coaching staff should not escape criticism for their roles in the disappointment of the last two months. We might not be on the level of the Irish or the French, but the current squad playing at the sum of their parts should have beaten an England side in transition, a France side under the weather and Italy at home.
When the former Scarlets man took over from Warren Gatland in 2019 I was excited. Yes, his final season in Llanelli was a dreadful one, but overall I felt he was what the national team needed to go from World Cup semi-finalists to actually winning the Webb Ellis Cup.
The previous regime’s style of play was effective, there’s no doubt about that, the trophies and the results in Six Nations show that, but they fell short in two areas; against southern hemisphere opposition and in the latter stages of World Cups. The reason for that in my view is that the game plan was too reliant on physicality.
You need to have something extra to your game, a minimum skill level, to beat the likes of the All Blacks, while we don’t have the natural size or the strength in depth to deal with playing with that level of attrition during the intense period of the World Cup. This is where I hoped Pivac would come in and get the job done.
At the Scarlets he developed a somewhat ruthless reputation for getting rid of players he either felt did not fit his style of play or those who simply got on the wrong side of him, and then implemented a game plan that was not only successful but that was aesthetically pleasing based on winning turnovers, a high intensity offload game and an expansive attacking game.
Unfortunately at Wales none of that has happened. During his first year I was prepared to be patient with Pivac when others were already on his back. The 2020 Six Nations was a fact finding mission, as was that long Autumn campaign covid hitting, and by the end of that there was evidence that progress was being made.
There were encouraging showings against Georgia, England and Italy, and although the 2021 Six Nations performances were largely below par and saved by red cards or favourable refereeing, there was hope through the summer international window that the coaching staff could see the impact of the bench during that Championship win and the upside of their battles with Argentina.
From the start of the autumn internationals it’s been a downward trajectory though. Any hints of positivity or shifts towards that exciting and effective game plan have gone away, players have not been moved on, the team chops and changes on a whim, and that results in a 15 taking the field that look like they have no idea what they are doing.
Despite all this however, I don’t think it’s necessarily time for Pivac to go. 18 months out from the World Cup is adequate time to turn things around, but the head coach only stays on one condition; he develops a backbone.
Now is the last and ideal chance to move on from some of the players who have been staples of the side over the last decade, throw off the shackles that sees safe hands picked, and invest in those who have the skill set to implement the attacking style that the tactical shape Wales are setting out with requires to be successful.
It won’t be an easy 18 months, going to South Africa in the summer during a transition period would be just about the hardest assignment imaginable, while facing the world’s best at home in the autumn will also be tough, but the aim would then to be competitive by next year’s Six Nations and carry that momentum into the World Cup.
If Pivac is not prepared to get tough though, and we arrive in Pretoria in July with the same old selections that are confused with the style of play then you can forget getting beyond the quarter-finals in France 2023. In fact, even making the knockouts would be a good result, as the Pivac era fizzles out with a whimper.