Where do Wales go next under Wayne Pivac?
It’s January and that can only mean one thing – the Six Nations isn’t far away. Wales’ new coach Wayne Pivac has had an uncapped fixture against the Barbarians and some fully loaded festive derbies to examine his new charges and make plans for his first international squad. Which players might fit his style of play, who might no longer be selected, who might be suddenly promoted, and what should Wales fans expect in the Six Nations? What legacy has Warren Gatland left?
Who will be hoping for a call-up?
Unlike his predecessor, Gatland, Pivac has coached a Welsh region previously and therefore knows a bit about the regional rivalries and a lot about many of the players. Fans of rival regions may be concerned about a preference, conscious or not, for his former Scarlets players but Pivac has been picked with a mandate to get Wales playing the type of rugby his Scarlets side did so it would be no surprise if he leans a little more heavily on them to start with.
Pivac is no dreamer and his title-winning Scarlets side had enough grunt to grind out wins against the big boys when needed. His desire to get Wales attacking in the manner fans have been dreaming of since the end of the 1970s isn’t going to lead to him overlooking the essentials. Nor does he take defensive responsibilities lightly – just ask Steff Evans and Rhys Patchell, who were sometimes dropped in Pivac’s last regional season for more defensively reliable options.
That said, it’s possible that some slightly smaller players might get more of a chance now. Wales are well-stocked at fullback, but Matthew Morgan and (when fit) Jordan Williams - both 5ft8" and little over 80kg in weight - could be hoping for a shot with the new coach at some point. Likewise, Evans - 5ft10" and also little over 80kg - will know if he can convince Pivac he can be trusted in defence again, his height shouldn’t count against him.
That’s also true in the back row. James Davies only broke into the Wales squad recently because of questions over his size but he was a go-to player for Pivac long before then. In a playing style that relies on turnover ball, any backrower who can convince the new coach of their ability over the ball will have a look in.
Who might not fit the new picture?
Interestingly, that might lead to fewer chances for Ross Moriarty, especially given how many flankers Wales have available to them. Pivac always seemed comfortable going without a true No8 at Scarlets and, while a fit Taulupe Faletau would surely always be in contention, given his many other talents, much of Wales’ recent success has come without him – and sometimes with a third flanker in his stead. Aaron Wainwright is as likely to be Pivac’s preference at No8 without Faletau as he became Gatland’s.
Another player who might be wondering about his place is George North. Still only 27, he is one of the most experienced players in the squad but with Josh Adams, Leigh Halfpenny, and Liam Williams available, plus Johnny McNichols and Evans, and the form of Owen Lane and Louis Rees-Zammit to consider, will North’s experience keep him in the matchday squad? His form has been patchy for a while now and Pivac seems to prefer players who dance around tackles, not smash through them. If North is fit, his inclusion or not in the early matchday squads could be a key indicator of Pivac’s roadmap.
Hadleigh Parkes’ is another whose form has declined recently and, while his role as a glue player should not be underestimated, he is unlikely to make the next Rugby World Cup. The logical thing to do, from a long-term perspective, might have been to start Owen Watkin at No12 with the experienced Jonathan Davies outside him, or perhaps give Willis Halaholo a chance in either position. However, all three are injured so Pivac’s choices at centre are more limited for the near future. Will Pivac call-up former Scarlet Scott Williams to fill the 13 jersey and keep Parkes inside him? Or might he try Dragons star Tyler Morgan at outside centre, with Parkes or Williams as the senior partner at 12?
As with North, selections at centre, even accounting for injuries, should give some insight into Wales’ way forward. Aside from their leadership experience, players like Alun-Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, and Jonathan Davies remain far too good to be dropped when fit. But how much experience does Pivac want balanced against the future of the side, given how many of the younger players available to him have stepped up for a major tournament so recently? We can only wait in eager anticipation for his debut Six Nations squad.
Wales have a core of players who started so young that they are hugely experienced while being on the right side of 30. Faletau, North, and Liam and Scott Williams all have 60+ caps, while nobody would rule out Jake Ball, Dan Biggar, Jonathan Davies, Leigh Halfpenny making the next RWC. That’s a seriously battle-hardened core, even if Jones and Owens don’t last forever in the pack, and Pivac can add to that the players Gatland promoted to leadership roles who might be future captains, such as Cory Hill and Ellis Jenkins.
Then there are the young players recently unearthed who looked in Japan like they are very much the future of this Wales side, like Adams, Adam Beard, Rhys Carré, Elliot Dee, Dillon Lewis, and Wainwright. The work Gatland did in his final few years to add depth to his squad has left Pivac in a very enviable position. There is a very strong foundation, whether he wants to transition slowly or quickly. Many of the new players are very comfortable with ball in hand. Moreover, in most areas, there is enough experience to blood newcomers relatively safely.
The Six Nations: Expectation Game
Given that foundation, how much should Wales fans expect in the upcoming Six Nations? This might be the most open tournament in a while. Only England and Scotland have the same coach as last year. For varying reasons, all the nations will be disappointed with how their respective RWC campaigns ended and have players looking to prove a point, as well as four new coaches aiming to start well.
France have added Shaun Edwards, arguably the best defence coach in the world, and a staff who seem determined to finally follow through on the promise of their young players. Ireland are beset by injuries in key places but will be burning with disappointment at their most recent performances and emboldened by Leinster’s current success. Wales are reigning Grand Slam champions and England are RWC runners-up. Scotland were sent home early and Italy never got their (admittedly rather limited) chance to prove themselves against New Zealand. That’s a tough table to predict, even if it does seem likely that Italy will prop up the table again, despite their continued improvement.
What Wales fans can expect is a change in attacking style. That’s a huge part of the reason Pivac was hired and he will want to set out his stall early. Away fixtures to Ireland and England are tough enough that fans might forgive losses if the performances are good enough and, with Italy at home first up before the trip to Dublin, Pivac will likely be hoping the easiest opening fixture available will help him get his charges into order before a much sterner test.
Even with the injuries in the centre, which has long been Wales’ thinnest area of squad depth, Pivac has an excellent squad available to him, with plenty to offer in attack. Adams appears unstoppable currently, Biggar is in the form of his life, Halfpenny seems to have rediscovered his running game, and Faletau was deservedly Man of the Match in his first game back from 18 months out. There are so many options in the back row that Pivac could field a different combination every week, and the depth in the front row has come on with the emergence of Carré, Leon Brown, and Ryan Elias.
All that means that it’s pretty reasonable to expect that Wales will, at a minimum, score more tries than they were wont to under Gatland and do so with notably more flair. For now, that would keep the fans happy – although, having become used to winning under Gatland, it won’t be enough in the long-term. Stepping into the shoes of Wales’ most successful modern coach with the aim of returning the side to their glorious attacking of the ’70s under their greatest amateur coach is a bigger ask than fans outside Wales might realise. Pivac’s reign could be a fascinating period, inside and outside Welsh rugby. There’s plenty to watch out for.