When the Welsh Rugby Union drew up a list of criteria when starting the search for Warren Gatland’s successor as head coach of the national team in 2017, the first was that the successful candidate had to have won more than just friends. The governing body was in no rush, as it had been more than two years before the job became vacant, and a dozen coaches were spoken to before interviewing a short list of three.
One of the three was Scarlets and former Fiji head coach Wayne Pivac, who had guided the region to the then Pro 12 title in 2017, winning at Leinster in the semi-final with 14 men before leading Munster across the country. Ávila Stadium in the final. to evoke memories of the days when Carwyn James coached Llanelli. It was the unanimous choice of the five-member selection panel, but the winner was not a word addressed to the New Zealander before the start of the Six Nations this year: Wales lost their last four matches of the 2020 tournament, their first, and finished between the also winners of the Fall Nations Cup.
After his appointment in the summer of 2018, Pivac had to be dissuaded before his first press conference to reveal the extent of his ambition to build on Gatland’s considerable success and add more grand slams and titles. His employers warned him not to become hostage to fortune given the team’s likely rebuilding: a coach he had approached said he would be interested in following whoever succeeded Gatland out of fear that many of the players would wear themselves out physically. in 2020. It seemed like prudent advice last year, but with Wales one grand slam win on Saturday and defeat a possible championship consolation, Pivac is ready to deliver on its promise to much of the group of players it inherited. .
“Watching Wales in the first half against Italy was like turning back the years,” said Gareth Davies, WRU president when Pivac was appointed. “The ball was put in front of the players and it was about what they saw in front of them. It was what Wayne did in the Scarlets, and although you can say it was only Italy, it was rugby to put a smile on your face; you could see that players who were used to crash-bang were enjoying it. If the campaign ends with the Grand Slam or just the title, it will be a familiar result but by a very different route. “
When Wales suffered a series of defeats last year, Pivac never made excuses or tried to deflect responsibility. He took on the media, particularly when he fired his defense coach and friend, Byron Hayward and, just before the start of the Six Nations this year, when he suspended wing Josh Adams for violating Covid-19 regulations. . From the outside it seemed that the hermetically sealed environment established by Gatland let in air and noise, and that Pivac, a former cop, lacked the authority of his predecessor.
“No one should make the mistake of thinking that Wayne is not as demanding as Warren was,” Davies said. “If someone thought it was a soft touch, they quickly realized that it was not; it just makes things more enjoyable. Another of the criteria that we established before naming him was the selection. I heard Eddie Jones say recently that it wasn’t important, but I couldn’t disagree more. In my opinion, it’s the number one priority and it’s an area where Wayne has excelled. “
Pivac made several players bleed in the fall series when some of the old guard seemed to be trading their reputations, making it clear then that his priority would shift in the championship: the only one in the starting lineup against France who has not won a championship. grand slam is 20-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit. If you’ve relied on Gatland compliant players, you’ve refreshed them mentally and a team that tended to win titles through defense is one attempt to set a new record for Wales in a Six Nations campaign. It’s been 26 years since they lost a Grand Slam match and they’ve done it only twice on the road – the last time was in Paris in 1971 when, armed with Barry John, Gareth Edwards, Gerald Davies, JPR Williams and Mervyn Davies, defeated France undefeated 9-5.
Despite the pedigree of the Wales team, it would be one of the most unlikely grand slams of the tournament given where the Pivac team finished last October after losing to Scotland at Llanelli. Some commentators have said it would be the worst of all time, although in 2016 England, whose last game was in Paris, could have been the least impressive of the six. Wales have been blessed with fortune, enjoying a men’s advantage against Ireland and Scotland and benefiting from two controversial refereeing decisions against England, but neither team has proven to be more lethal in their opponent’s 22.
They are the best with a 100% record due to their ability to create in a way that used to be beyond them: think of the 2015 World Cup against Australia and South Africa, even the World Cup semi-final defeat of 2019 against the Springboks, as well as countless friendlies against the big three of the southern hemisphere. Even in defeat before last year’s first block, Wales reveled in open play, disappointed by defensive lapses and an unreliable play. They have hardened this year and have become more aware.
Nothing worked in the fall, but when Pivac named his team to the Six Nations in January, he was optimistic about the prospects for Wales. “We are here to win and we have chosen a team accordingly,” he said. Few were listening, nor when they came from behind to defeat Ireland and then Scotland. A parallel could be drawn to Leicester City’s unexpected success in the Premier League in 2015-16 when all the usual contenders for the title fell, but Wales were the defending champion last year.
He was asked this week if, after receiving calls last year to get him fired, he was tried too soon. “Maybe, but it goes with the territory,” he replied. “It took us a while to get it up and running at the Scarlets and, in the end, we had some success. People will have their opinions and for good reason: if things don’t go well, questions will be asked. That doesn’t bother me in the least – when I watch other sports, I’m probably pretty critical too. It’s human nature. “
Eddie Jones may refer to the 59-year-old as a young man, but he’s been around long enough to know that the sport doesn’t run in a straight line. In the last year he has treated failure and success in the same way, neither desperate nor triumphant. He’s living in the moment, but he’s also bought time, getting even more from the players who’d done it all while grooming their successors, smiling in his own way.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism