“In terms of resources, we are probably as deep as we can go in nearly all positions.”
So said Wales forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys in the build-up to his team’s autumn finale with Australia last month, a game Wayne Pivac’s side won 29-28 at the death.
The end of 2021 saw Pivac’s squad hit hard by injury, so hard in fact that at the start of the autumn, they were without 20 players for their opening game with New Zealand.
Seven of those 20 were unavailable because they are based in England and the All Blacks Test fell outside World Rugby’s Test window, but the number of injuries suffered by Pivac’s players was the recurring theme of the last campaign of 2021. It certainly forced Pivac’s hand on selection.
“Depth chart” “succession” and “opportunity” quickly became buzz words with Pivac keen to emphasise how, partly through necessity, he is building for the future. He has been keen to ram home that message on a constant basis ever since succeeding Warren Gatland at the end of 2019.
Has he had success in that area? Pivac certainly thinks so. “When the dust settles, we’ll look back at the squad we’ve used and the depth we’ve created this autumn,” he said after the Australia win. “The benefits will lie when we go one to 15 on our depth chart. Development has been the key and it’s been forced upon us in a lot of areas. We’ve gone a bit deeper than we’d have liked to.
“But the depth chart is now looking a little bit better than it was at the start of this campaign. The depth is building.”
Building a large player pool and planning for the future is nothing new. All countries do it and as far back as 2006, then Wales head coach Gareth Jenkins had a chart on the wall of his office detailing the first-choice picks in each position from the senior team all the way down to Under-16 level.
But Wales’ need to plan for the future is now arguably more important than ever given the backbone of their side which achieved so much success under Gatland’s tutelage will be the wrong side of 30 come the 2023 World Cup. The hit TV show Succession stars Brian Cox as media magnate Logan Roy, a man who agonises over which of his three children should be the future of his media conglomerate Waystar Royco. Like Roy, Pivac has his own worries over what is to come, if not the millions in the bank. There are serious doubts over whether his key men Alun Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies will still be around in two years.
Iconic captain Jones will be 38 by France 2023 and hooker Owens 36.
Pivac has already started looking at their successors, but with Wales boasting a population of just over three million, there are only a finite number of players to pick from.
That is why the former Scarlets coach has leaned so heavily on the Welsh Exiles programme which identifies Wales-qualified players based abroad. More of that later.
Pivac wants to be able to pick from five players for each position and in an ideal world, would be able to mix and match between them without seeing a drop-off in ability.
“There is now a transition with Wales where they had an established side for a long period of time,” Dragons director of rugby Dean Ryan told The XV. “Through injury or design, they are now having to look at the next tier, but you can’t just jump into that. You can’t take somebody that’s playing for the Dragons and expect them to be a seasoned Six Nations campaigner.
“You’ve got to continue to build competitive opportunities for them. I don’t think it takes much to work out that will be Wales’ challenge over the next five years.”
This is the problem facing Pivac as at times, he has faced no other option than to give Wales’ next generation their learning curve at the highest level. Since taking over from Gatland, he has handed out 22 Test debuts in a bid to see who can survive the cut and thrust of Test rugby.
Some have thrived on the big stage – think Louis Rees-Zammit. Some have wilted – think Sam Parry and Kirby Myhill. The big question is, will Wales have the sort of strength in depth which is needed to lift the William Webb Ellis Cup by the time of France 2023?
Wales’ last two World Cup campaigns have seen them limp to the finish line and eventually fall just short despite heroic efforts. South Africa have been the team to beat them in the knock-out stages of both the 2015 and 2019 tournaments with Wales battered and bruised by that time.
Pivac has made a concerted effort to try and ensure that doesn’t happen on his watch and he has looked at more than 50 players since becoming head coach. He has cast his net far and wide, acknowledging that while the four Welsh regions – Dragons, Cardiff, Ospreys and Scarlets – produce plenty of talent, more is needed. He is a big fan of the Welsh Exiles system.
Pivac has picked Will Rowlands and Nick Tompkins – both born and playing in England at the time of their selection – for Wales and more are likely to follow. Centre Johnny Williams has been part of the Welsh Exiles system since he was 14 while it also helped to flag up the availability of Bradley Roberts who was unheard of to almost all except Ulster fans when he was selected for Wales this autumn. Roberts won his first cap against the country of his birth South Africa. He is a good example of how expansive Wales’ selection policy is becoming.
The Welsh Exiles system has been in place for 30 years, but for the last six it has gone to a new level and been more aligned to the national squad’s succession planning.
Gareth Davies heads up the system and works closely with Pivac. “We want to increase the size of the player pool available to Wayne,” Davies told The XV after finishing a Zoom call to South Africa in which he’d been discussing potential Welsh-qualified players based there. “Warren was the same as Wayne in terms of always looking at succession planning. It is very important for any head coach. “Wayne is very keen on making the most of the Exiles programme because bringing players through for Test rugby is very challenging. It takes a long, long time for us to get players over the line in terms of committing to Wales. It’s very, very rare for a Welsh-qualified player to play for Wales within six months of coming on to our radar. It’s often a long, drawn-out process.
“Nick and Will playing for Wales was the culmination of three or four years of hard work. The Welsh Exiles is a vital part of the succession planning in Welsh rugby and for depth charts for Rugby World Cup campaigns. In Wales we have a lot of faith in our four regions and our pathway systems, but in the end, we only have four professional teams and a finite number of players.
“We would be foolish not to look at players from outside Wales who could be available to us. World Rugby’s regulation eight on eligibility is now the most important. We’ve seen that recently with the change in eligibility laws.”
Davies continued: “You need world-class players in every position at Test level and if you can’t do that, you need top-class players. The autumn demonstrated the need for a strong depth chart in Welsh rugby. We need to influence the development of players so they are ready to come into the senior squad and be successful. It is not a fluke that we have had success. It takes a lot of hard work. “Look at the Cardiff squad which went to South Africa recently. There were three players in that squad who we have worked with since they were 13 or 14. Theo Bevacqua, Gwilym Bradley and Ellis Bevan are from Sussex, Surrey and Dorset respectively. They are not household names yet, but neither was Louis four years ago. I’m massively excited about the work we are doing both in the United Kingdom and overseas. It will make a big difference to Welsh rugby.
“Wayne is extremely supportive of the programme and what we do is a massive part of Wales’ succession planning.”
Wales is a country which has never struggled to produce quality players and the three Six Nations Grand Slams of the Gatland era is more than enough evidence of that.
But when Pivac looks at how his squad might line up for the next World Cup, he will surely assess there are issues to be resolved at hooker, second row and centre.
The XV has spoken to several leading academy figures as well as the senior coaches at the four Welsh regions who believe the Welsh development pathway is working. That said, it is not perfect.
“For those guys to be playing for Wales at such a young age is great for their development. It will be great for Wales in the long run for those guys to be exposed to Test rugby.
“I think there is good depth in Wales and the most important thing is the young players need to play which is down to all of us in charge of the regions.
“We need to make sure they get their opportunities at the right times and it’s something we’ve spoken about at the Scarlets. We’ve got good kids coming through in Wales.”
Pivac will hope that is the case. In the back-line, Wales have a world-class first-choice back three of Liam Williams, Rees-Zammit and Josh Adams. Things are murkier behind that while centre is a real problem position. Even with all Wales’ injuries, the great Davies was dropped to face Australia.
Tompkins, Williams, Uilisi Halaholo and Owen Watkin have all had their moments, but they have also not totally convinced. The return to fitness of George North and that of his Ospreys team-mate Michael Collins – who was born in New Zealand – would add to Pivac’s options.
At fly-half, Biggar has stated his desire to make France 2023 and he probably will do. Gareth Anscombe is still looking to get back to his best after his horror knee injury, Rhys Priestland has retuned to the fold, and Callum Sheedy seems to be the coming force.
The Welsh Exiles system missed out when Harry Randall committed to Eddie Jones’ England.
Interestingly, there is now closer cross-regional collaboration in terms of player development in Wales. The country’s four professional sides will still rival each other for signings, but working alongside the Welsh Rugby Union as an overarching umbrella, there is co-operation too.
Ospreys head coach Toby Booth has also worked at Gallagher Premiership sides Harlequins and Bath so is in a good position to compare and contrast the talent coming through in England and Wales. “Wayne has spoken about giving the next generation of talent an opportunity last summer and in this autumn campaign due to injury,” Booth said. “The greater the depth chart you have, the greater the consistency in your performance. It’s as simple as that. The difficult part is the speed at which you can make that happen. If we can facilitate a good playing programme, I think you will see the depth chart at regional level, and subsequently international level, improve.
“There is definitely talent there despite Wales being a small nation We’ve all got to work in a connected and collaborative manner to develop it. The mechanisms for finding talent in England are more refined – there is less left to chance and that’s probably because there are 13 teams looking for it. We are in conversations with the WRU and the other regions about trying to find the best solution for Wales. Dean, Dwayne, Dai Young and I have all worked in different environments.
“There are different practicalities we can bring to help try and find a solution. We all want successful regions who grow our own talent and as a by-product, produce players for Wales.
“The Welsh system does allow for opportunity for players at a young age and that’s where it’s better (than the English system) for me. The solution they’re looking for in England is around trying to get young players enough rugby. I think Wales is definitely better off in that regard.”
In the back-row, Welsh resources are well stocked although Pivac will hope for Ross Moriarty and Taulupe Faletau to stay fit as No 8 options. Second row is a problem. Jones is Wales’ greatest ever player, but he is 36 and will miss the start of the 2022 Six Nations due to a shoulder injury.
Cory Hill and Jake Ball have flown the Welsh rugby nest. There is Adam Beard and Rowlands plus the promising Ben Carter, but not much else. Exeter’s Christ Tshiunza is set to develop as a key figure in the next two years, but he is seen by Pivac as more of a six than a lock.
Tshiunza made his Wales debut against Fiji and is still just 19. Ryan Elias’ promising autumn has established him as the No 2 hooker behind Owens, but Pivac plucking Roberts from obscurity shows he wants more. Prop is also a worry with Wyn Jones, Rhys Carre, Rhodri Jones and Gareth Thomas all on a pretty level playing field for the loosehead shirt. On the other side of the scrum, Tomas Francis leads the tightheads with Dillon Lewis, WillGriff John and Leon Brown in reserve.
There is much work still to be done and it is a never-ending process.
“Being in the top three in the world is an enormous challenge and that’s where Wales should be. It is what they are aiming for,” said Ryan. “There is a lot of potential here, but that’s not enough to be a regular competitive tier one nation.
“We need to have a clear strategy on how the regions continue to improve and become competitive and how that gets closer to international rugby will be the fundamental of building depth.
“It’s not just taking 21-year-olds and giving them international experience. That’s just part of it.
“We need to ensure all the parts are working together.”