Ranked a lowly eighth in the world, it’s a strange time for the Welsh rugby fan. After a middling summer series and mixed results in the autumn, everyone seems to have forgotten Wales won this year’s Six Nations. Indeed, following losses to Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa, Wayne Pivac’s side seem to have been written off as also-rans by pundits.
Following Ireland and France’s respective demolitions of the All Blacks, the vibe is very much that Wales are underdogs going into 2022, rather than aiming to retain their title. There are, however, many positives to Wales’ year. Pivac’s job is to build a side who can win the World Cup in 2023, so his focus will be on what he has learnt in terms of developing a wider squad.
Some of Pivac’s lesser experienced players are now tried and tested against New Zealand (with all Premiership-based players unavailable), and while the result of that match was derided, it will have been a substantial learning curve. Wales will be disappointed not to have closed out the South Africa match they led for 63 minutes and will be wary of their luck when it comes to red cards. It may be a coincidence that so many players wanted to decapitate Wyn Jones, but Pivac’s team certainly won’t be relying on that next year.
Let’s take a look at some of the points Pivac’s men started to build in the 2021 autumn campaign and will be looking to improve in order to defend their Six Nations title.
Depth at hooker
For so long now, ‘the Sheriff’, Ken Owens, had his deputy in Elliot Dee. Before the 2019 World Cup, Warren Gatland gave Dee lots of opportunities to become a viable option in the event of Owens being unavailable. Dee started two out of three games on Wales’ 2018 tour on which they beat South Africa and Argentina.
This autumn, Wales were faced with the difficulty of both first-choice hookers being unavailable. Some rugby players immediately take to international rugby and some take longer to acclimatise. It’s safe to say Ryan Elias has taken the circuitous route. He never quite managed to reach the standards of Dee and Owens for 2019, then was vilified for a few errant throws against Scotland in the 2020 Autumn Nations Cup. He had a shaky start to this campaign, overthrowing two crucial lineouts against New Zealand, but backed that up with some outstanding performances against South Africa, Fiji and Australia, in which he scored three tries.
The fact Elias remained on the field for a full 80 minutes against Fiji shows that Pivac has developed trust in the hooker – and will double as a huge confidence boost. If you’ve got a hooker who’s good enough that you want to leave him on for 80 minutes, you can definitely trust him in a World Cup.
Developing Adam Beard as a leader
This is something Pivac has started to do -and will hopefully continue. With Alun Wyn Jones out for the foreseeable future, Beard has stepped up and taken responsibility as a true leader within Wales’ pack. After a Lions tour (including a cap in the third Test) in which he turned doubters into believers, Beard has shown that he is not only strong in the maul, but a great carrier and solid handler out wide.
With a 69% win rate in international rugby (compared to, for instance, Alun Wyn Jones’ 50%), Beard has the makings of a ‘Test-match animal’ – with all the ruthless qualities of a winner. Beard took the captaincy at the end of the South Africa Test, which suggests Pivac is looking to develop the 6ft 8in behemoth into a leadership figure who can drive standards.
With Jones likely to miss the Six Nations, the pressure will be on Beard to fill his shoes. When the totemic Jones is back, the two will make a formidable combo.
A different kind of fullback
Pivac was slated for ignoring the form of Jonah Holmes and favouring Johnny McNicholl this autumn – but his selection has paid off. More often deployed on the wing, people rightfully had their doubts about McNicholl under the high ball and defensively, after a poor 2020 Six Nations, but he showed he is up to the task aerially and married it with a solid kicking game.
Leigh Halfpenny and Liam Williams are two of the best full-backs in the world. Halfpenny scales every blade of grass, covering opposition kicks better than anyone else. Williams is supremely physical and is capable of starting counter-attacks from anywhere. McNicholl, however, has provided a different service to both of them, which nobody expected.
The Kiwi-born Scarlet has shown competence as an extra first receiver. He can distribute the ball and attack the line well and he works hard to get extra touches of the ball. His second-half counter-attack against New Zealand put Rhys Priestland in space, before McNicholl immediately jumped back to his feet to make a second line break in as many phases.
If everybody is fit, McNicholl is likely still Wales’ third-choice full-back, but if Pivac wants to play an expansive brand of rugby, McNicholl has made himself very selectable.
Wales replenish the back-row options
Pffft, this small nation of 3million people has a back row of Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric and Taulupe Faletau. What’s the point of even playing in that position with three world-class competitors? Well, with all three of these Lions out injured this autumn, the back row has remained a huge positive for Wales.
Arise young Taine Basham, Aaron Wainwright and Christ Tshiunza, whose average age is 21. We’ll come on to Ellis Jenkins shortly, but Wales’ riches in the back row seem to be endless. If everybody’s fit, Pivac may still need to leave out Ross Moriarty, Shane Lewis-Hughes and Dan Lydiate.
It says a lot about Basham that he turned 22 this month and puns on his name are already clichéd. After going toe-to-toe with the All Blacks, he has established himself as one of Wales’ primary carrying options, particularly on a ‘flood’ attack. He is the sort of flanker who ensures his team’s next movement is forward. He may not possess the same technical ability as Navidi, but he is currently Wales’ best back-up option to work as part of a three in Pivac’s 1-3-2-2 system.
Wainwright’s role somewhat shifted this autumn. The Dragon has shifted from lung-busting flanker to gnarly No8, with a greater focus on carrying the ball. He has become Pivac’s best alternative to Faletau, showing good footwork, a strong leg drive and decent footballing ability that befits a former Cardiff City football trainee. He has the potential to work much like Faletau as a hybrid back rower in the wider channels as part of a two.
Ellis Jenkins as captain
Wales held its collective breath when Alun Wyn Jones went down injured but, from a World Cup perspective, his injury may have been a blessing in disguise. Ever since Sam Warburton’s retirement, Wales have been heavily reliant on Jones to carry them to titles. Jones may be one of the greatest leaders, locks and rugby players of all time, but he will turn 38 during the 2023 World Cup.
Up steps Ellis Jenkins. The Cardiff flanker probably would have taken the national captaincy by now if not for his two-year lay-off. He is a natural leader who always produces world-class performances in the biggest games.
Whether he’s stealing near-impossible turnovers on the floor, or oozing confidence by patting the current world champions’ skipper on the belly and remarking “Cheers, Siya” mid-match – Jenkins has the calm, intelligent leadership that Wales need. It’s like he has been destined to do it since he was in the Under-20s. This autumn, he has seemingly risen above Jonathan Davies in the captaincy pecking order.
While Jones and Owens are out, there is a vacancy for the Welsh skipper role – and he is the obvious candidate. If he stays fit, Jenkins has to be the potential to take the Wales captaincy for the Six Nations and potentially retain it through to 2023.