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Wayne Pivac's must-win Wales debut

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'It will be a challenge for him': Why Wayne Pivac's opening match for Wales is one he can't afford to lose

Wayne Pivac goes under the white-hot scrutiny of coaching Wales when his new team takes on Warren Gatland’s UK Barbarians on Saturday in Cardiff.

He is the fourth Kiwi coach to take the Red Dragons in 21 years. How will he go in comparison to Sir Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Gatland?

The latter offered guarded praise of his successor in the latest issue of Rugby News magazine:

“He’s been saying all the right things about not making too many changes and not trying to reinvent the wheel. He was successful at Scarlets and now he has a chance to coach a tier one nation. It will be a challenge for him, but he wants to add his own stamp and personality.”

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Pivac is a vastly experienced coach and was 2003 New Zealand Rugby coach of the year after taking Auckland to a third NPC title in five years. He is media-friendly and a lot of players have a lot of time for him and his methods.

The reality is that he should have earned a Super Rugby gig with the Blues several years ago, as his knowledge of players in that franchise’s catchment area was second to none, having coached all three provincial unions, Northland, Auckland and North Harbour.

But, as Pivac himself has told this scribe, the timing around Super Rugby never worked out. In 2014, he took up the job at Scarlets, doing good things with that proud region, including annexing a PRO14 crown in 2017. He surrounded himself with good local men, Stephen Jones among them.

The timing of his departure to Scarlets wasn’t flash, still contracted to Auckland at the time, but he could not sit around while the Blues job was still John Kirwan’s. Funnily enough, when Kirwan’s tenure ended in ignominy in 2015, a Pivac-Paul Feeney ticket, a partnership forged way back in their playing days at Takapuna, could have borne fruit from 2016. Instead, Tana Umaga got the nod after sterling work at Counties Manukau. Unfortunately, it did not end well and the Blues travails continue to this day.

Pivac was, like Hansen, a policeman, so he has learned to be a man manager and judge character. Hadleigh Parkes and others such as Johnny McNicholl speak highly of him. Parkes was a journeyman in New Zealand but he thrived at Scarlets under Pivac’s tutelage and is now an established international. McNicholl will became another Kiwi Red Dragon this weekend. Fine player that he is, he probably would not have been an All Black. Likewise Willis Halaholo, who was promoted from the Cardiff Blues, though now hit with an untimely injury.

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Pivac has coached for nearly 30 years over all levels of the game, including guiding Fiji in 2004-07. He knows the game, he knows the players, and now he faces the ultimate litmus test with a tier one nation that is arguably more obsessive about the game than his native New Zealand.

He has massive shoes to fill after 12 years of Gatland with Wales. Pivac is seven days older than Gatland. Both are members of the NZ Barbarians club. Both will adhere to the Baabaas’ open rugby philosophy this weekend. But only one of the two coaches badly needs the win. Wales must lay the foundation for the Six Nations this weekend, and Pivac must lay the marker for what he hopes will be a fruitful, not turbulent, time in the valleys.

In other news:

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'It will be a challenge for him': Why Wayne Pivac's opening match for Wales is one he can't afford to lose