The Welsh Rugby Union made the announcement on Monday that Scarlets head coach Wayne Pivac will be the man to replace Warren Gatland after the 2019 Rugby World Cup, when Gatland moves on from the role he has held for 12 years.
Pivac will take the helm at the conclusion of the RWC and will continue to have the sole remit of coaching the Scarlets during the 2018/19 season, with the Kiwi only coming under the WRU’s jurisdiction once the coming season is over, when announcements on his backroom staff will also likely be made.
It’s impossible to have missed the stellar job that Pivac has done with the Scarlets, taking the Welsh region to the summit of the Guinness PRO12, as well as making them a force to contend with in Europe, all the whilst on a smaller budget than many of their Irish, English and French rivals.
Of course, he has been able to recruit from abroad in order to realise that meteoric rise, something which he won’t be able to do as Wales head coach – unless he’s willing to wait five years for the player to qualify – but it has been measured recruitment. Recruitment to supplement, rather than recruiting to build around.
The likes of Tadhg Beirne, Hadleigh Parkes and Jonny McNicholl have played key roles in the Scarlets’ recent success, but the bigger story has been what he has got out of the Welsh players under his tutelage, the majority of whom were already at the Scarlets when he arrived, as well as a handful who have been brought in from other regions.
James Davies and Liam Williams are two of the most prominent to flourish under Pivac, whilst the front-row of Rob Evans, Ken Owens and Samson Lee is a match for anyone in Europe, whether that’s at the set-piece or in the loose.
The WRU will expect him to bring that same ability to get the most out of the players at his disposal to the national job and whilst an international gig is obviously a very different beast to the demands of a PRO14 job, it is perhaps one which is getting less different by the year.
The reason why Pivac is such a good hire – to this writer, at the least – is that he is an extremely good fit for the direction in which international rugby is moving.
The old adages about club and international rugby being poles apart are still somewhat true and it is why players who are excelling in the PRO14, Premiership or Top 14 aren’t automatically successes at Test level or, in some instances, aren’t even picked.
The gap is narrowing, though. Not necessarily in terms of quality, but in terms of the style of rugby played.
It really wasn’t that long ago that you could win an international game with a strong scrum and an accurate goal-kicker. Changes to the engagement sequence, the desire for props to play an all-court game and the general shift in attitude towards teams wanting to play heads-up, high tempo attacking rugby, has ended that as a realistic possibility or philosophy on which to build a team.
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Given that the source of your players is the club game, it’s only natural that the playing style at Test level would begin to match that of the competitions in which the players play week in, week out. It’s no different to the NFL, where America’s showpiece sporting competition has adopted the spread offence with such gusto, something which is rife at the collegiate level, where the NFL sides replenish their playing pool from each year. At its core, this is simply seeking to play to the strengths of your own players.
International rugby is not as loose as the club game and won’t be for some time, if it ever is at all, but that is the direction of the shift we are seeing at Test level. Finding a coach that will thrive in that environment is paramount and Pivac ticks that box emphatically.
He also brings a knowledge of the current Wales team, the squads of the four regions and the emerging stars coming through the WRU’s age-grade pathway that no coach based outside of Wales could possibly have.
You can already predict the temporary outrage from Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and Dragons fans when Pivac picks his first Scarlets-heavy squad, but it is temporary and will soon dissipate as he either begins to win games or gets those players from the other three regions into a training camp and explains what he needs them to do for them to feature in future squads.
He will have to adapt, of course. He can’t come in and expect Wales to play like the Scarlets and have immediate success, even if the international game is becoming a more fluid, high-tempo entity.
The blueprint is there for how he can make Wales a more consistently clinical side with ball-in-hand, but until he can get the group up to speed with one another and his expectations, there will be certain situations where he will have to diverge, significantly, from what he demands of the Scarlets.
Less running it from deep, some opportunities at three points that can’t be turned down and potentially some adjustments at the contact area, but it shouldn’t be a problem for a coach of his calibre.
This idea that attacking-minded coaches are idealistic dreamers whose domain is club rugby is highly suspect, with the majority of them every bit as pragmatic as the eldest of old school defence and forwards coaches. After all, five or seven points is more than three, right? And more points win you more games, right?
He knows the international arena, too, having coached Fiji for three years and the five seasons he will have spent with Scarlets come the start of his tenure with Wales will have prepared him well for the realities of northern hemisphere international rugby, in particular.
What Wales have got themselves following the RWC next year is a progressive and intelligent coach, who knows the players at his disposal, is aware of the young stars about to break into senior rugby and who is the perfect fit, stylistically, for the evolving international game.
Identifying that person, securing them and being able to put in place concrete transitional plans over a year out from its implementation, is a very adept piece of businesses from the WRU.
The onus is now on the Scarlets to find themselves as good a coach as they did when Simon Easterby left for Ireland back in 2014.
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