When Wayne Pivac took over the job of Wales Head Coach in November 2019 I don’t think many appreciated the scale of the challenge that faced the former Scarlets man.
Warren Gatland had enjoyed a period of success in winning 14 games in a row culminating in the 2019 Grand Slam, and then made it to the Rugby World Cup semi-final in Japan, but had done so at some expense to the post-World Cup era knowing that he was moving on to pastures new. For a few years at least, anyway!
The average age of the starting XV that took the field in the semi-final defeat to South Africa was 28.3. Had Josh Navidi and Taulupe Faletau been fit it would have been higher again. Just nine players made debuts in the final two years of Gatland’s first tenure, and only five of them would go to the World Cup. The spine of the squad had been in place for close to a decade.
Pivac arrived with the task of transitioning away from that ageing squad and also evolving the style of play, with his natural inclination being to play a more expansive style of attacking rugby rather than the physical and attritional style of Gatland’s that produced success in the Six Nations but struggled against the big three Southern Hemisphere teams and resulted in too many injuries to win a World Cup.
Unfortunately the intervening three years have been a confused assortment of team selections and tactics. The spine of the squad still contains the same old faces and the supporting cast has chopped and changed with alarming frequency, while the style of play lurched wildly from ridiculously loose to overly direct and pragmatic. To put it bluntly, it’s a mess.
Of course it would be churlish of me not to note the equally tragic mess that is the Welsh Rugby Union’s governance and the impact that has on the national team.
The success of that previous golden generation has been almost entirely wasted with no improved development pathway facilities and coaching infrastructure in place to replicate that cohort of players, cuts to finances in the professional game have diminished the competitiveness of the four professional clubs, and as a result the quality of player provided to the national team has dropped.
However, that quality has not dropped to the point that it reflects the performances and results produced on the watch of Pivac, and as a result his position was completely untenable following the Autumn Internationals which saw us beaten comfortably by New Zealand, slide to an embarrassing loss against Georgia and then implode spectacularly in the encounter with Australia.
At times under the former copper it became clear what the attack should look like; versus Italy in Autumn 2020, Canada in the summer of 2021 and Fiji in the November of the same year, while against Scotland and Ireland during the 2021 Six Nations we moved the ball well in the final stages. They come with the caveat of being against generally weaker sides or against 14 men though.
In the meantime the attack was either awkwardly stretched in structure; pods of forwards littered across the field with the idea being to win regularly quick ruck ball and allow the backs to float freely between them but in reality just leaving breakdowns under-staffed and open for turnovers, or excruciatingly pragmatic; a kick heavy approach that was almost Warrenball on steroids, pounding the opposition into submission with aerial bomb after aerial bomb.
Then where the squad needed transitioning away from that ageing spine he did not afford himself the time to bed in new players introduced to the international level. Rather than manage expectations through the first two years the old guard were wheeled out at the first sign of any pressure coming on in the hope of scraping a result from somewhere.
The likes of 35-year-old Ken Owens, 37-year-old Alun Wyn Jones, 33-year-old Justin Tipuric, 35-year-old Rhys Priestland and 33-year-old Leigh Halfpenny were being asked to play high tempo expansive attacking rugby, while 24-year-old Sam Wainwright who has hardly played any senior rugby, 21-year-old Ben Carter, 22-year-old Jac Morgan, 23-year-old Tommy Reffell and 22-year-old Rio Dyer were tasked with the physical and direct approach.
Ultimately that lack of clear tactical thinking, what seemed to be a refusal to adapt his favoured tactic to the international arena, and the constant tinkering of the starting line-up with usually little or no impact all added up and the results began to match the performances in being well under the par expected.
It’s a shame because with a proper transition period for the squad and some tactical tweaks to make that attacking system a bit tighter and more suited to the top level then the makings of some success were there. If Wales are ever going to win the Rugby World Cup it’s going to have to be by playing a bit of rugby, rather than going toe-to-toe with sides bigger and/or more durable than us.
What the future holds remains to be seen, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence that the WRU seem to believe that going back to 2014, but without Shaun Edwards and the golden generation of players, seems to be the answer. We’ve got to be looking ahead to 2034 if we’re going to progress.
For now though the Wayne Pivac era has been an almost complete disaster, despite somehow winning the 2021 Six Nations, and the history books are unlikely to be kind.