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No chummy ‘best mates’ act

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Preparing a side against Gatland like dating a new girlfriend still pining for a very visible, much-loved ex-boyfriend

In truth, Wayne Pivac will have been glad to wave the Barbarians wagon out of town. The consummate professional, he knows the game needed to be played and it will have served as a useful dry-run to the Six Nations, which will be kicking off in 62 days. Logistics, squad-meet up, targets set, coaching team familiarising themselves with existing backroom staff. All boxes were ticked, however for Pivac, preparing a side against Warren Gatland was like being introduced to a new girlfriend who was still pining for a very visible, much-loved ex-boyfriend. Coaches rarely get to choose their own ending but Gatland did and the long goodbye ended with an ovation for him that was both generous and heartfelt yet as Pivac alluded, prior to the game there was no chummy ‘best mates’ act. He had a job to do. A mutually respectful beer afterwards was mooted but the ex-Auckland detective will be glad he can finally start to put his own imprint on a Welsh side with Gatland 12,000 miles away.

A crowd of north of 62,000 trundled into the Principality Stadium in another money-spinner for the Welsh Rugby Union. Despite grumblings from regional fans, after a largely humdrum start to the season it was confirmed a portion of the gate receipts will find their way into the regional coffers, and not a moment too soon. The reason for such a healthy gate against a not-so-star studded Barbarians line-up was two-fold. To usher in a new coaching era and to bade a sweet farewell to Gatland. Both objectives were successfully accomplished but there was plenty to dissect as the supporters headed for the nearest hostelry.

There was early food for thought for George North, watching from the galleries with Alun Wyn Jones and Liam Williams. As early as the third minute Johnny McNicholl was popping sumptuous offloads to Ken Owens. Since bullocking onto the national scene in 2010 with a brace of tries against South Africa at just 18, North has been an automatic pick on the flank for his 91 Test appearances. With 39 Test tries for Wales, and 41 overall, he is the highest international try-scorer still in action. At just 27, it must be pointed out that he still has much to offer Wales but the eligibility and obvious class of McNicholl means he now has a bonafide challenger for the Welsh shirt. After 12 tries in the last 12 months Josh Adams deserves to be an automatic pick. Often, new caps can freeze under the spotlight of a nation but the New Zealander seemed to thrive from performing on the most grandiose of stages. His confidence to step Josh Strauss while running the ball from deep in his own backfield showed his confidence and he was rewarded for his early ambition with a classy finish in the corner. Pivac admitted afterwards he ‘loved it out there’. Even with Liam Williams a doubt for the start of the Six Nations, Wales’ back three options look well-stocked. Adams, North, McNicholl and Leigh Halfpenny are considered first-choice and one will have to miss out. The former Crusader is more than capable of playing at full-back so his fellow Scarlet Halfpenny will also be feeling the heat. These are the problems Pivac wants to have.

One coveted piece of the new Wales selection jigsaw under Pivac will surely be Taulupe Faletau but for now he’s being nursed back to health. The erstwhile No 8, who has endured some wretched luck with injury in the last 18 months, has just turned 29, and still has many years ahead of him but you wonder if Wainwright, 22, has been earmarked to follow his illustrious predecessor. With Ross Moriarty run down and out with infection and Josh Navidi still recovering from a hamstring strain incurred in the World Cup quarter-final, it was instructive to see Aaron Wainwright tasked with covering the No 8 position. With his best position in the backrow yet to be decided, he acquitted himself more than adequately, carrying aggressively around the fringes, hitting good lines and interestingly, working the tramlines, along with Justin Tipuric, in a way that was reminiscent of the former Dragon. Still learning the nuances of playing at No 8, it was an encouraging cameo.

As the game unfolded, despite the caveat that it was ‘only the Barbarians’, the interplay and width displayed yesterday was innovative, engaging and frankly, a breath of fresh air. Wales went ‘coast to coast’ in under three minutes signalling their intent, as backs and forwards looked to keep the ball moving through hands, with Wyn Jones and Dillon Lewis both conspicuous for their dexterity. With Tomos Williams and Jarrod Evans razor-sharp, adding invention and trickery from half-back, you would assume the management had given ‘licence to play’ but 16 offloads, 36 defenders beaten and six tries is still noteworthy.

Pivac has been open in saying he’s keen to evolve Wales’ game, as a counterpoint to the oft maligned ‘Warrenball’ and there were enough examples that Stephen Jones is starting to orchestrate a more aesthetically-pleasing game for an expectant public. Those supporters may have to choose whether they want to be entertained and lose the odd game or play pragmatic, muscular winning rugby because history tells us you can rarely have both.

Key to continuity in Pivac’s fledging days are his ‘over 30’s. Like an x-factor audition band, the ‘overs’ can state with confidence that Wales hasn’t seen the last of them. With a change of coach, there is often a temptation to undergo a root and branch upheaval at the end of a World Cup cycle. To jettison players who have served you heroically but have slipped the wrong side of 30 for bright young things lauded up and down the country in media missives, pubs and on the terraces. Wayne Pivac has, reassuringly, decided not to cast aside all Wales’ pre-1989 vintage reds. Justin Tipuric, 30, was typically industrious, earning turnovers, providing neat interplay all over the park and holding up tacklers with typical aplomb. Hadleigh Parkes, 32, was all vim and vigour, only a month after running himself to standstill; hitting lines, tackling robustly and showing more than an ounce of finesse with the ball in hand as he scanned for space. This nuggety attitude was exemplified by Ken Owens, 32, however, who put in tub-thumping performance full of wit, endeavour and raw power leaving Pivac in no doubt he is not about to slip away quietly. One ferocious rip of the ball from the bear-like Bastareaud was majestic, as were the tip-ons, pop-passes from the deck and thunderous ball-carrying into contact. Leigh Halfpenny, 31, was also a dependable presence with the boot, and full of running.

Pivac will need to judge when his talisman have served their purpose in a Welsh shirt but now is patently not the time.

For all the bonhomie and talk of new beginnings, there is plenty of tinkering to do under the hood. Kick-offs were underwhelming as Wales failed to secure ball on three occasions. In defence, the last six weeks of Shaun Edwards weren’t the meanest of his 12 year tenure, with 18 tries shipped in the World Cup campaign, and Wales again looked inconsistent in the tackle area. Josh Strauss was felled by Wainwright and Tipuric but still managed to crawl five metres to score, while the impressive Curwin Bosch was given the freedom of Cardiff when spotting the gap to canter through a prone Owens and scrambling Sam Davies and score in the second-half.

Sixty-six tackles were missed between the sides in all, as 76-points of festive frivolity unfolded but Byron Hayward will know tightening up needs to be done as Wales were also caught narrow in defence in the second-half, and went from 33-7 up after 47 minutes to a nervy 40-33, 19 minutes later as the bench was emptied and Wales lost shape and rhythm.

Indeed, they needed Halfpenny’s composure to make sure of the result on 76 minutes, and it was mildly comforting to see Wales hadn’t completely lost their pragmatic leanings, even against the BaaBaas. The win mattered.

It’s been a long time coming but we can finally say the Pivac era is up and running.

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Preparing a side against Gatland like dating a new girlfriend still pining for a very visible, much-loved ex-boyfriend