Defeat can do strange things to coaches. Where once victory provided surety of thought, a chastening reversal of fortunes can precipitate agonising indecision and sleepless nights.
Wayne Pivac, with his picks for France, has cocked the gun but he mostly refused to fire with the trigger finger. In short, he has not made the swingeing Guinness Six Nations changes that suggest a man lacking clarity of thought.
A loss and they will have to put Scotland away on the tournament’s final day and settle for a likely soul-sapping fourth-placed finish. Win, and a spring in their step will spirit them towards TW2, still hopeful that they can reproduce their 2013 Six Nations title heroics when they lost to Ireland in the opening round but swept all-comers aside from thereon in.
In truth, the build-up to the round three fixture has not matched Deontay Wilder versus Tyson Fury, but a few eyebrows were raised when Wyn Jones mentioned the ‘C’ word. For the uninitiated, the mild-mannered loosehead from mid-Wales said the French would, ahem, push the boundaries at scrum time, while Tadhg Furlong was name-checked for destabilising the scrum – a decision Wales have since said World Rugby informed them was incorrect at the time.
(Continue reading below…)
Jim Hamilton and Darren Cave give their predictions for the Principality Stadium fixture
It was the same Wexford-born behemoth who let go a roar that could be heard in his home town of New Ross in the 63rd minute in Dublin after a scrum penalty, given by Romain Poite, relieved the pressure of a Welsh assault. Fine margins, indeed.
While it was some way off a Gatland Grenade, you would have to assuage that Wales’ scrum is under scrutiny and they have decided the best form of defence is to come out swinging.
Whether Jones was prompted to speak up by scrum coach Jonathan Humphreys, who was known to be frustrated by the interpretation of the laws, is open to conjecture but what is clear is that on Saturday, Wales’ pack will have a chip on both shoulders and will look to do some destabilising of their own with the French props, Cyril Baille and newcomer Mohamed Haouas, the 20st Montpellier tighthead. Haouas interestingly has a similar backstory to Ellis Genge in being somewhat of a handful growing up, so he is unlikely to be intimidated.
The French acted with indignation at the mere suggestion of improper conduct, with Fabien Galthie saying, “It’s a lack of respect for our scrum, a lack of respect for our team, a lack of respect for French rugby but also for our nation”. His second-in-command, Raphael Ibanez, added it was ‘rude and childish’. Slight taken and pistols at dawn then. All part of the theatre
“This is the Six Nations tournament and in the Six Nations tournament there is no room for these kind of remarks.”https://t.co/9IoCqAKDQM
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 20, 2020
Put-downs aside, for Pivac the one tweak that will have forced him out of his comfort zone was the decision to revert to type and go with the tried and tested Gareth Davies at scrum-half.
Tomos Williams was heavily backed for a continued run in the No9 shirt. After a standout performance against Italy and a smartly taken try against Ireland, he would have been odds-on to keep his place but an uncharacteristic handling error saw him fail to clear his lines and several phases later Furlong bundled over. At that point, it suggests the pendulum swung towards Davies.
With 52 caps, Davies has that experience and aggressive line speed to spot blitz and put pressure on the 9-10 channel. As a fine practitioner of the intercept, his job will be to make the French half-backs twitchy, leaving replacements Williams and Baptiste Serin, scorer of the tournament’s outstanding individual try to date, to duke it out in the game’s final quarter.
The other significant change is the recall of Ross Moriarty in the back row to complete an all British and Irish Lions triumvirate. Moriarty has reacted positively to the threat of dropping out of the Wales 23. Ever since Taulupe Faletau returned, he has known that five top-drawer back rows wouldn’t fit into four and had Josh Navidi been fit, the smart odds were on him being surplus to requirements.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 20, 2020
As it has transpired, Aaron Wainwright, so good against Italy, endured his quietest game in a Welsh shirt against Ireland and Moriarty has brought his not-so-subtle but effective edge to Pivac’s attention.
Over the last two years, where Faletau has missed out on the best part of 25 Test caps, Moriarty has done a competent job at the base of the scrum, but some feel his skill set is still better suited to the blindside, allowing the prodigiously gifted Faletau to express himself.
It bears similarities to Ireland’s CJ Stander switching from No 8 to No 6 and back in the Irish back row. In Test rugby, versatility is a prerequisite and the uncompromising Moriarty earns his 44th cap.
Two other selections merit debate. On the right flank, George North, so heavily criticised after a subdued performance against Ireland, has been preferred to Johnny McNicholl. North’s record is there for all to see. He is the highest international try-scorer currently still playing the game and sits behind only Shane Williams in the pantheon of Welsh try-scoring greats.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 21, 2020
Indeed, only Brian O’Driscoll and Williams have beaten more defenders than him in Six Nations history, so he has been backed by Pivac to bounce back, as he so often has, from an indifferent display. His try brace against France in last year’s Six Nations encounter has meant the benefit of the doubt has been afforded for now.
The other factor worth mentioning is that McNicholl has fluffed his lines with some flaky defensive displays that suggest he is still a work in progress at this rarefied level. The people’s favourite, Louis Rees-Zammit, has been forced to kick his heels yet again, a victim of circumstance and his increasing importance to Gloucester.
Whether he will be seen this tournament or left to refine his game until the summer tour to New Zealand remains to be seen – he has only played 15 professional games in his career, so some perspective is required – but a long, fruitful career in a Wales shirt seems assured, just not yet.
The continued faith in Nick Tompkins speaks of a coach who is selecting for the attacking threats at his disposal rather than a selection solely to nullify the considerable gifts of Virimi Vakatawa. Owen Watkin must have figured heavily in the conversation but after being out for two months with a knee injury and only making a try-scoring return last weekend, the Saracens midfielder has been preferred.
France are riding a wave of optimism after an unbeaten start to the Six Nations with Wales next to test their resolve. RugbyPass digs deep into the reasons behind the French renaissance…
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) February 19, 2020
A plan to starve the Fijian-born 13 of possession must have been at the top of the agenda this week, but the hope is that Tompkins is worth the investment, not worth jettisoning.
For those with long-memories, even the world-class Jonathan Davies had a few missteps in his burgeoning Welsh career in the 2009 autumn Series and he hasn’t turned out too badly. Tompkins’ continued selection suggests the management feel he is worth the perseverance.
On the bench, one notable inclusion is Will Rowlands, the 6ft 8in, 19st Wasp who has been preferred to Adam Beard, who has had a low-key season with the struggling Ospreys. Rowlands took a blow from Tom Youngs last weekend after Pivac challenged the fringe locks to put their hands up and his propensity for rolling with the punches will be a valuable asset with the gnarled French pack in town. He will make his debut.
Pivac has been at pains to stress that the desire for short-term results must be balanced with the need for long-term development but with a Six Nations record 859 caps in the starting line-up, a lack experience can’t be proffered in post-match missives if the result goes against them.
With a French onslaught guaranteed three rounds into the Six Nations, the new Wales coach will need all his gumption to stick to his guns in the bumpy waters of Test rugby. It’s early days, but he knows he needs time to turn doubters into believers one step at a time.
WATCH: RugbyPass goes behind the scenes with the Barbarians for their recent Principality Stadium match versus Wales
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now