Bonhomie and heartfelt platitudes have been the order of the day in this Six Nations build-up for Wayne Pivac, but he is about to find out that a welcome in the hillsides is reserved only for those coaches who can provide a big ‘W’ at the final whistle. His honeymoon period will be shorter than Ed Griffiths’ return to Saracens if Wales fluff their lines in front of 70,000 fans under the Principality Stadium roof.
Thankfully the portents bode well.
Wales have never lost to Italy on home turf and while the 18-18 draw in 2006 was received with barely concealed disbelief, Italy are winless in the Six Nations since 2015, so a victory over the World Cup semi-finalists would set off the sort of seismic shock waves last seen in Pompeii, so what can we make of his first roll of the dis?
I feel the need, the need for speed…
Wales now have two viable back threes who could scorch the earth. On Saturday, it’s the turn of Leigh Halfpenny, Johnny McNicholl and Josh Adams to audition for permanent roles but conceivably the following weekend in Dublin, it could be Louis Rees-Zammitt, Liam Williams and George North lining-up against Ireland. In anyone’s book, that’s a giddy array of talent and below that, you’d assume if fit Owen Lane, Hallam Amos and the in-form Steff Evans could do a job for Wales.
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The hope is the 10-12-13 axis can utilise such flair by playing expansive rugby. McNicholl, particularly, has looked like a Test player playing regional rugby for some time and has been name checked by coaches as looking ‘razor sharp’ in training. Don’t forget that North, who has stepped inside to 13 as he tries out for his ‘second career’, has tormented the Azzurri in recent years with eight tries in his last five appearances. He will know the message is writ-large, about getting more key involvements on the ball. With Jonathan Davies watching from the commentary box, we will find out if the big North Walian can replicate his esteemed team-mate.
Will we see him putting boot to ball as an exit strategy? How well will he marshal the exposed 13 channel and how will his communication hold up in a different role? The 91-cap wing will know that Nick Tompkins, a far more experienced player in the 13 shirt, will be chomping at the bit to show that Granny Enid’s boy can pass muster at Test level.
Josh Navidi will be missed but Wales have options
The news Josh Navidi has a hamstring injury was met with glum faces from around the Wales camp yesterday. As a jack-of-all-trades, the Cardiff Blue is a mightily useful addition the backrow mix and was sorely missed in the World Cup semi-final. He can play the power game, hit the rucks, spoil opposition ball and tackle himself raw but one man’s loss is another man’s gain and Ross Moriarty will be desperate to make sure he clings on as a key cog in the Wales 23.
Even before Navidi was injured, I thought Navidi was destined to make an impact from the bench, with the raw dynamism of Wainwright preferred. The Dragon best complements the prodigiously-gifted, duo Taulupe Faletau and Justin Tipuric and as a trio, they’ll need to click because the backrow is the Italian’s most effective area and in Braam Steyn, Jake Polledri and Sebastien Negri able to match their Welsh counterparts with brimstone and fire. Wales have another option in Cory Hill who has shown he can play on the blindside but it is the fiercely competitive Moriarty who has most to gain from Navidi’s absence.
The scrum-half battle is bubbling away nicely…
We don’t know the extent of Gareth Davies’ groin injury but we can rest assured the West Walian is cursing his luck knowing that it has gifted his old sparring partner, Rhys Webb, with an early chance to assert his authority on proceedings, probably on a tiring Italian pack.
For Tomos Williams, it will be only his sixth start in 17 appearances, and there is a desire from the Welsh management to see if he can influence games from the whistle, not in his familiar guise of impact sub. Knowing Webb is on the bench could unsettle the No 9 from Treorchy or serve to motivate him, but either way, Pivac needs to know how he’ll cope. If they don’t switch halfbacks together, Webb could share the pitch with someone who knows his game instinctively, in Dan Biggar and how that relationship reconnects will be duly noted by Pivac ahead of the Ireland game.
Stephen Jones’ early SOS a silver lining for Wales
It would be hard to underestimate just how much Stephen Jones learnt about the Welsh squad during an intense six weeks at the World Cup. While Pivac performs the management duties, Jones is very much the hands-on tracksuit coach and how the mechanics of the backline operates is down to him.
There has been an onus on not pulling apart so much of the solid foundations laid by the Gatland era, so during this Championship we may see a Gatland-Pivac hybrid style of play but if space is sought and the offload count rises, signature Jones plays may start to emerge which should give us an indication of where Wales’ game plan is going to differ to the previous era.
Jones is already hugely familiar with his new management team. A former teammate and close friend, Martyn Williams, is on hand as a sounding board while Sam Warburton offers youthful energy and at 31, an ear in the camp to sense the mood. On paper, at least, it looks like Pivac has assembled a shrewd bunch of lieutenants to take Wales forward and Jones is front, middle and centre of that group.
Places up for grabs at the coal face
The front row is one of the less glamorous environments in Test rugby. Little heralded but you know if it isn’t functioning correctly soon enough. While Ken Owens looks a key tenet of the front row, who binds either side him at scrum-time is less sure. Wyn Jones overtook Rob Evans at loosehead ahead of the World Cup, but he’ll know that the handling skills of Evans and the explosive carrying game of Rhys Carre will mean a dropping of standards is verboten.
On the other side, Dillon Lewis has to ensure the stability of the scrum to compliment his breakdown work and energetic carries in the tight knowing Leon Brown, whose scrummaging has improved infinitely, and WillGriff John – a man who looks like he’d be equally at home lugging Atlas Stones – is breathing down his neck. This while first-choice Tomas Francis convalesces from the shoulder injury incurred when tackling behemoth, Duane Vermeulen in Japan. Jonathan Humphreys will have his wrench out ready to tinker, and will be eager to know what he’s working with. Tadhg Furlong and Cian Healy await.
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