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Wales go to Dublin on Saturday to face Ireland in round two of the Six Nations and the second meaningful match for their new coach, Wayne Pivac. He’s made a decent start, but Geraint Powell assesses the extent to which one coach can leave his imprint and how long it might take.
The Wayne Pivac era began in earnest on Saturday, with a comfortable home 42-0 shut out of a poor Italian side that can no longer even has a customary rearguard action from Sergio Parisse.
Yes, there was a match against the Barbarians in November, but such a match is usually a far cry from tournament Test rugby and, if truth be told, it was more of a send-off for Warren Gatland after his 12 years and three World Cup cycles at the helm of the Welsh national side.
Pivac became the fourth New Zealander to coach Wales after Gatland, Graham Henry and Steve Hansen. His route to the Welsh job has been rather different to his predecessors, neither spending nearly the entirety of his coaching career in the northern hemisphere (like Gatland) or stepping off the plane and straight into the Welsh national coaching set-up (like Henry and Hansen).
For whatever reason, and despite his domestic provincial coaching success with Auckland, Pivac was never given the top job at the cross-border Blues regional franchise based in Auckland. That might have been no bad thing, given their colourful off-field politics in keeping with their Welsh regional namesake and their on-field decline since the days of Henry coaching them.
Still, a few eyebrows were raised, as an ex-coach of the Fiji national side, when he turned up in West Wales in 2014 as a mere assistant coach at the Scarlets region (he was soon bumped up to head coach role with the quick departure of Simon Easterby to the Irish national coaching set-up).
The upside of this is that, unlike his Kiwi predecessors, he comes to the Welsh head coach role with an intimate playing knowledge of the domestic player pool. Henry, in contrast, had to initially rely upon others, and it became obvious during the 1999 Five Nations that he did not agree with some of the initial selection advice received.
The downside is that he became the first Kiwi head coach already associated with a domestic non-Test team, an association that is always a mixed blessing in tribal top flight Welsh club and nowadays regional rugby.
The glee of some fans in West Wales when Mike Ruddock left, and the glee of some fans in East Wales when Gareth Jenkins was sacked, are distant but not yet forgotten memories.
The managing of expectations, certainly initially, will be a much more difficult exercise for Pivac than for his Kiwi predecessors.
Henry arrived with Wales in chaos, towards the end of the dark days of the 1990s and having shipped nearly a century of points to the Springboks in Pretoria. Hansen stepped forward following Henry’s loss of the dressing room and a heavy defeat in Dublin, with a number of key players coming towards the end of their Test careers.
Gatland arrived in the fallout from the pool stage humiliation against Fiji at the 2007 World Cup, not just losing to Fiji but having tried and spectacularly failed to beat them at their own running game. He departed 12 years and three World Cup cycles later on the back of a third Grand Slam and a second World Cup semi-final finish.
Historically, the biggest problem for Welsh rugby, the continuous loss of key players to rugby league, is but now a distant and fading memory of a bygone era – even if it took the first decade of professionalism to overcome the legacy and rebuild the player pool.
Thus far the “play in Wales to play for Wales” rule has not caused any significant player unavailability, but there is still a lack of depth in a number of positions as a result of our domestic structural failings.
The greatest challenge for Pivac will undoubtedly be in continuing the transition towards a more fluid and attack-focussed side, or “adding value” as he would see it, for that is the trajectory that the global game is moving towards in any event.
The breakdown is nowadays usually the key battleground between teams, not the set piece of line-out and scrum. Although any set piece woes for a side retain the potential to be catastrophic on a given day.
This, theoretically, suits the natural instinctive footballing rugby players that Wales traditionally produces, but the practical downside is that Welsh rugby has never remotely got its act together at regional level.
Good attacking play is best developed from successful domestic teams rather than from ones heavily defending against Irish provincial and other cross-border competition sides and living off a pretty thin gruel of their own good ball.
Pivac has traditionally been a pragmatic coach, and the balance to be struck with the Welsh national side is a difficult one. Both those expecting and fearing a free-flowing, but defensively fragile, Wales are likely to be disappointed.
The entire Welsh rugby business model is now almost exclusively dependent upon a successful national side pulling in the broadcasters, the sponsors and the crowds to fund everything else that is in deficit.
Many of today’s regular attendees for Test matches at the Principality Stadium care little for regional or even club rugby. They have loyally supported Gatland’s Welsh sides that have often been limited in attack, but which could usually grind out wins and certainly at the hemisphere level. Even on those occasions over the last decade when Wales have been beaten, the final score has seldom been embarrassing.
The movement towards a more attacking posture, with the additional defensive risk that entails, is likely to be a cautious process.
Isolated ball-carriers being penalised is one thing, but at Test level the real risk is the full turnover and the counter-attack with your team still trapped in an offensive pattern.
The more forwards you have spread across the field, and especially out wide, the greater the counter-attack vulnerability.
Pivac’s native New Zealand thrive on such turnover ball and counter-attacking rugby, and he is, after all, a product of that rugby culture.
We are likely, even in this first season of the World Cup cycle, to witness an evolving style. But we are unlikely to witness a radically evolving style.
The defence needs to remain solid, and there are several set piece issues that still need addressing. So prudent career risk management will be joined by the practical reality of the constraints of what can be addressed in a short period of time.
The widespread feeling was that Pivac should at least be aiming to secure home wins over “the three blues” this tournament. The first leg was easily completed against Italy, with no serious hiccups in attack or defence.
Elsewhere, the manner of the French win – especially the first half performance – over England in Paris, suggests that might be a harder match in Cardiff on 22 February than previously anticipated but, to use the oldest cliché, “you never know which French team will turn up” from one match to the next.
The manner of the English defeat in Paris and of the Irish win against Scotland in Dublin may well have raised the expectations of Welsh fans in relation to difficult away matches in Dublin and Twickenham against the strongest Six Nations opponents over the last decade.
Those matches, as so often against those two opponents, are still likely to heavily come down to the weather conditions and the refereeing interpretations (Romain Poite and Ben O’Keeffe respectively, this season).
But the Pivac era is truly up and running and this team now heads for a tough match in Dublin against an Irish team undoubtedly hurting from a 2019 that massively disappointed compared to their formidable 2018 form and results.
The post Wayne’s World Will Be A Brave New One . . . But Wales Won’t Get There Overnight appeared first on Dai Sport.
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