Wayne Pivac has been round the block. A former policeman on the beat in Auckland, the 57-year-old has been in plenty of high-pressure situations on civvy street, but nothing will quite prepare him for 74,000 expectant Wales fans and the cliched ‘three million selectors’ breathing down his neck, especially after the most successful period of their history.
The affable Kiwi will need a titanium-plated hide in the coming months as he has inherited a highly-skilled, battle-hardened squad that is respected throughout world rugby. It’s not all rosy in the Welsh garden, however.
Beneath the international game, Welsh rugby is running to stand still. As millions are ploughed into the global game as it looks to grow its traditional fanbase, Pivac’s inbox will be overflowing. RugbyPass are the charitable sort, so we gave him a helping hand…
Kick the tyres on the current eligibility regulations
Firstly, for all the heavy-lifting Pivac is likely to do on the training pitch, he is going to need to forge a durable working relationship with his paymasters. That means WRU chief executive Martyn Phillips and chairman Gareth Davies.
You would assuage that informal discussions have already taken place about what is expected in his four-year tenure leading up to France 2023, but now is the time to start implementing a realistic wish-list. Like most unions, many will cast their eyes enviously towards South Africa.
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When Rassie Erasmus was parachuted in to take over from Allister Coetzee, with the Springboks in a state of disrepair, he insisted one of the key pieces of red tape eradicated was the 30-cap rule that had been implemented in 2017 to arrest the player drain from South Africa.
Without doing that, Cheslin Kolbe, Faf de Klerk and Vincent Koch would have been ineligible and it’s not too fanciful to say they wouldn’t have been celebrating a World Cup triumph. Clearly, Wales’ cause celebre is Rhys Webb, who at 30 is not ready for the international scrapheap.
How a player can come through the age-grade system and, crucially, make over 150 appearances for his region yet is ineligible to play for Wales when Pivac will be casting his eyes over Kiwis Johnny McNicholl and Willis Halaholo is nonsensical.
With a modest playing base, Wales need to be as flexible as possible and play smart. There are suggestions that Wales could move to fully contracting 38 players. Yet whatever transpires, the Welsh selection strategy needs constant re-evaluation.
ALTERNATIVE AWARDS ?
Wales bowed out of the World Cup with their reputation in tact, so it's time to hand out some tongue-in-cheek awards
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 3, 2019
Renewed push on improving mediocre domestic results
If reports are to be believed, Welsh rugby could soon be heralding a cash windfall into the union and regional coffers as never before. Father Christmas, otherwise known as CVC, are said to be inflating the Six Nations kitty to the tune of £300million while the PRO14 is angling for a £120m injection of cash. This will be meted out to hungry clubs, regions and provinces.
It doesn’t take Warren Buffett to figure out that this sort of lucre will be invested in back into the game. In their recently published accounts, the WRU posted a highly-creditable annual turnover of £90.5m, of which £33m was invested back into the regions, including their regional subsidiary, the Dragons.
Bolstered by CVC cash, those involved in Welsh rugby would hope to see a better return than recent years when only two sides – Cardiff Blues (2009) and the Scarlets (2018) – have reached the knockout stages in Europe. When sides talk about having ‘skin in the game’, it feels as though Welsh sides are no longer a part of the conversation at domestic rugby’s top table, with Wales’ Irish and Scottish counterparts outperforming them.
Last season, Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Glasgow and Edinburgh all reached the knockout stages in Europe. This is simply not good enough. There has to be a renewed focus from the PRB (Professional Rugby Board) on improving fortunes domestically, which will in turn improve dwindling crowds. The hosting of the PRO14 final in Cardiff is long overdue and should help endear league that has been unloved by the Welsh public for too long.
Make Wales’ game more creative
Welsh rugby can often sound like a spoilt teenager, such is its demands and expectations for instant gratification. As much as Gatland’s side eked out trophy after trophy in their most successful period in the professional era, a familiar brush with which to beat the coaching team was a lack of creativity.
Against South Africa, the biggest criticism was that an injury-ravaged Wales ‘should have moved the ball wide’. The reality is Wales didn’t have the wherewithal or personnel to suddenly start throwing it around like the Harlem Globetrotters in a World Cup semi-final, yet there is a semblance of truth in a rather limited game plan.
Gatland consistently reverted to type after flirting with playing expansive rugby at various stages during his tenure. The return to fitness of Taulupe Faletau (soon) and Gareth Anscombe (not so soon) will help bring variety to the game, but one of the big reasons Pivac has been employed is the brilliant offloading game he conjured up with Stephen Jones in 2017 and 2018, leading the Scarlets to a PRO14 final win and an all too rare Welsh appearance in the Champions Cup semi-final.
While expressing themselves playing the ‘Welsh way’, as WRU’s incoming chairman Davies so eloquently put it, is important, so is keeping the Welsh defensive line intact. It wasn’t as its snarling best in the World Cup, shipping 19 tries, but over 12 years, Shaun Edwards is heavily in credit and Byron Hayward, a handy boxer in his time, will have to keep his guard up by maintaining Wales famed defensive sets.
Jacques Nienaber is a national hero in South Africa for building a 7ft South African wall and Hayward will have his work cut out trying to match Edwards’ intensity.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 2, 2019
Managing the veterans
Some erstwhile wits have suggested that Wales start from scratch when it comes to planning for France 2023 and jettison the ageing spine of the current Wales team. The reality is somewhat different.
Even if creaking body parts deprive Wales of Ken Owens, Jonathan Davies and Hadleigh Parkes by France 2023, and put the participation of Justin Tipuric, Leigh Halfpenny and Webb in doubt, they shouldn’t be taken out of commission until ready.
The Welsh crowd are notoriously fickle and if Wales start getting thumped convincingly after putting out inexperienced sides, well-meaning patience will be drowned out by a cacophony of boos from fans expecting a continuation of the Gatland blueprint.
Unfair? Of course, but it’s a results-based business. Some of the aforementioned players will be eyeing a Lions hurrah in 2021 and, as South Africa have proved, two years is more than enough time to mould a World Cup-winning side.
Pivac’s skill will be deciding when to let those bulwarks go, as Gatland did with the likes of Martyn Williams, Adam Jones, Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips, often months before the World Cup.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 1, 2019
Succession planning for Alun-Wyn Jones
Whisper it, but there will come a day when Wales have to cope without the indefatigable Jones. With 143 caps for Wales and the Lions, he is set to pass Richie McCaw next year as the world’s most capped player and his swansong, form and injury permitting, is likely to be a fourth Lions tour in 2021 at the age of 35.
There is no doubt that even though the Mumbles-born leviathan has captained Wales 32 times, of which 29 of them have been in his thirties, his influence arguably exceeds that of Sam Warburton, who captained his country on 49 occasions. When he isn’t on the pitch there is a pronounced leadership vacuum as was evident against Ireland in the pre-World Cup warm-ups and Uruguay when he was rested during the World Cup.
Contenders for the captaincy arm-band can be counted on one hand. Pivac’s captain at the Scarlets, Owens, will be 33 in January, while Tipuric and Josh Navidi could fit the bill and took the reins this year, but it’s a man who missed the World Cup through injury who could prove the most viable option.
Cory Hill is vaunted for his leadership and he was such a valued member of the World Cup squad that Gatland took one less prop and added a back row just to accommodate the second row into his plans. At 27, he has the right age-profile to take Wales forward to France. Finding the right leader to carry Wales over the channel is 2023 is not to be underestimated.
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Bringing in the new without discarding what made Wales successful
With any new coaching set-up, inevitably there is a frisson of excitement about any new players brought into the Welsh set-up. A regional coach since 2014, Pivac will be very aware of the talent at his disposal and you would think he would have been doing his due diligence at every regional academy and senior set-up in recent months.
Evolving what is a very tight unit will have to be done with the deft hands of a Jenga master, so as not to upset squad harmony. Gatland built an enviable squad culture that enabled the side to become world rugby’s ‘mentality monsters’ in the last 18 months, winning 20 out of their last 25 Tests, often in nervy climaxes.
Pivac has a headstart in that Stephen Jones has already spent seven intense weeks with the squad in Japan and Jonathan Humphreys, the widely respected forwards coach, already has strong bonds with captain Jones and Tipuric but this is a new beginning and we will see new faces as early as 2020.
The evolution has started, and that is thanks to Gatland who has progressed the likes of Josh Adams, Aaron Wainwright, Tomos Williams, Dillon Lewis and Owen Watkin over the last 18 months and blooded the likes of Owen Lane and Rhys Carre in the World Cup warm-ups.
With a glut of fresh-faced talent in Wales in the shape of Dewi Lake, Taine Basham and Harri Morgan and ex-pats Tommy Reffell and Ioan Lloyd earning rave reviews in the Premiership, Pivac won’t be spoilt for choice as he plots his French invasion.
Overall, what he will need more than anything else is time, that all too rare commodity in Test coaching. His first outing? A game against the BaaBaas coached by Gatland…
Pob lwc, Wayne.
WATCH: Warren Gatland’s final media conference as Wales coach
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