This summer will mark the start of the home straight in the four-year Rugby World Cup cycle that will end in France in around 16 months time.
For Wales it is the ultimate test that awaits over three weeks in July as Wayne Pivac takes his side to South Africa for a battle with the world champions and #1 ranked Springboks on the back of a severely disappointing Six Nations that culminated in an embarrassing home defeat at the hands of Italy.
So far the New Zealander’s era in charge of the Welsh national team has been underwhelming at best, with a stream of increasingly mediocre performances slowly seeing results switch from fortunate wins to tough losses, all set against a background of under-investment in the professional game from the Welsh Rugby Union that has resulted in a vicious off-field atmosphere.
That means there are elements of the state that Wales are in as an international side that are not in Pivac’s hands. The cracks that previous successes papered over are now clear for all to see and rapidly becoming too deep to fix, leading to a dearth in quality and physicality coming into the country’s player pool that will only get more pronounced over the next few years.
However, I would still strongly argue that the current head coach is not getting the most out of the squad available to him, due to some muddled thinking over both tactics and selection. There have been flashes of the Pivac blueprint that brought success to Scarlets, but there have been times where sticking with an older spine of players from the Gatland era in that system has backfired.
So now we fast-forward to this summer and a chance for Wales, as well as their man in charge, to go into a series without pressure as even the most ardent of supporter would surely struggle to predict anything other than a 3-0 loss in the Rainbow Nation.
What would massively aid that lack of pressure is if Pivac was to pick a fresh and innovative squad when he announces his touring party on Tuesday, giving new faces an opportunity to shine on the international scene, young talent a chance to put the fast and expansive game plan into action and, perhaps most crucially, some battered and bruised bodies get some much-needed rest ahead of a massive season of rugby.
On that final point there are, to my eyes, a number of players that would benefit from a full summer off before a proper pre-season going into what will be almost 14 months of straight rugby through the 2022/23 campaign, into pre-World Cup training camps and then on to the tournament itself.
The question is whether all of the likes of Alun Wyn Jones, Adam Beard, Gareth Davies and Dan Biggar need to go this summer having toured with the Lions last year, and if it’s worth rushing the likes of Wyn Jones, Ross Moriarty, Tomos Williams and Josh Adams back from injuries when you can name an exciting young talent or an in-form fringe player for each of their positions.
At this point I could run through a decent-sized list of players that I’d love to see given an opportunity to tour this summer, but I suspect you as a reader will be able to run off many of the same names in your head, so instead of that I will cover why I think it is wise to use them away at the best and most physical side in all of international rugby.
Over the past two-and-a-half years we have seen a number of sides try to go toe-to-toe with the Springboks. Wales and England in the late stages of the 2019 World Cup, Argentina during the 2021 Rugby Championship and, perhaps most notably, the Lions last summer. None of them have come out on top, so if they can’t then what makes us think this Welsh side will?
Now where we can have a go at South Africa is outside their defensive blitz which goes hard around the fringes of the breakdown and out to the 12 channel, but can be susceptible to conceding a line break if the ball is moved quickly into and beyond the 13 channel, either through the hands or off the boot.
So picking some younger, quicker and more attack-minded players, taking the shackles off them and letting them express themselves, leaving the set piece and forward battle to one-side and focusing on performance over result is, to my mind at least, the best way forward for the short and long-term when looking at this summer’s tour.
Beyond that then my hope would be that the greater competition for spaces would result in an upturn in quality ahead of the World Cup, while simultaneously Pivac coming to the realisation that picking players that suit his game plan will actually result in some success. It is, though, the hope that kills you.