Pivac proving the doubters wrong as resurgent Wales eye title

A team that was unfancied at the start of the Six Nations now one win away from the Grand Slam

When the Welsh Rugby Union drew up a list of criteria as it started the search for Warren Gatland’s successor as the national side’s head coach in 2017, the first was that the successful candidate had to have won something more than friends.

The governing body was in no rush as it had more than two years before the job became vacant, and a dozen coaches were spoken to before a shortlist of three was interviewed.

One of the three was the Scarlets and former Fiji head coach Wayne Pivac, who had guided the region to the then Pro12 title in 2017, winning at Leinster in the semi-final with 14 men before running Munster all over the Aviva Stadium in the final to evoke memories of the days when Llanelli were coached by Carwyn James.

He was the unanimous choice of the five-strong selection panel, but winner was not a word aimed at the New Zealander before the start of this year's Six Nations. Wales lost their final four matches of the 2020 tournament, his first, and finished among the also-rans in the Autumn Nations Cup.

After his appointment in the summer of 2018, Pivac had to be dissuaded before his first media conference from revealing the extent of his ambition to build on the considerable success of Gatland, and add more Grand Slams and titles.

His employers warned him not to hostage himself to fortune given the rebuild of the squad that was likely: one coach who had been approached said he would be interested in following whoever succeeded Gatland, fearing that many of the players would be physically spent by 2020.

It looked prudent advice last year but, with Wales on Saturday one victory away from a Grand Slam and with defeat holding the potential consolation of the championship, Pivac is ready to make good on his promise with largely the same group of players he inherited.

"Watching Wales in the first half against Italy was to see the years rolled back," says Gareth Davies, the WRU chairman when Pivac was appointed.

“The ball was put in front of players and it was all about what they saw ahead of them. It was what Wayne did at the Scarlets and, while you can say it was only Italy, it was rugby to put a smile on your face; you could see players who had been used to crash-bang were enjoying it. If the campaign does end with the Grand Slam or just the title, it will be a familiar outcome but by a very different route.”

When Wales endured a string of defeats last year, Pivac never made excuses or tried to deflect responsibility. He fronted up to the media, notably when he sacked his defence coach, and friend, Byron Hayward and, just before the start of this year’s Six Nations, when he suspended the wing Josh Adams for breaching Covid-19 regulations. It seemed from the outside that the hermetically sealed environment established by Gatland was letting in air and noise, and that Pivac, a former policeman, lacked his predecessor’s authority.

Soft touch

“No one should make the mistake of thinking that Wayne is not every bit as demanding as Warren was,” says Davies.

“If anyone thought he was a soft touch, they quickly found out he wasn’t; he just goes about things in a nicer way. Another of the criteria we laid down before appointing him was selection. I heard Eddie Jones say recently that it was not important, but I could not disagree more. In my view, it is the number one priority and it is an area in which Wayne has excelled.”

Pivac blooded a number of players in the autumn series when some of the old guard appeared to be trading on reputation, making it clear then that his priority would change in the championship: the only one of the starting line-up against France who has not won a Grand Slam is the 20-year-old wing Louis Rees-Zammit.

If he has relied on players who delivered for Gatland, he has refreshed them mentally and a side that tended to win titles through defence is one try away from setting a record for Wales in a Six Nations campaign. It is 26 years since they lost a Grand Slam encounter and they have clinched 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 – they defeated an unbeaten France 9-5.

Despite the pedigree of the Wales side, it would be one of the tournament’s more unlikely Grand Slams given where Pivac’s side finished last October after losing against Scotland in Llanelli.

Some commentators have said it would amount to the worst ever – although in 2016 England, whose final match was in Paris, could have been said to have been the least unimpressive of the six. Wales have been blessed with fortune, enjoying a man advantage against Ireland and Scotland and benefiting from two contentious refereeing decisions against England, but no side has proved more deadly in their opponents’ 22.

They are top with a 100 per cent record because of their ability to create in a manner that used to be beyond them; think of the 2015 World Cup against Australia and South Africa, even the 2019 World Cup semi-final defeat against the Springboks, as well as countless friendlies against the southern hemisphere’s big three.

Even in defeat before last year’s first lockdown, Wales revelled in open play but were let down by defensive lapses and an unreliable set piece. They have tightened up this year and have become more aware.

Nothing worked in the autumn, but in January when Pivac named his squad for the Six Nations he was sanguine about Wales’s prospects: “We are here to win it and have picked a squad accordingly.”

Few were listening, nor were they when they came from behind to defeat Ireland and then Scotland. A parallel could be drawn with Leicester City’s unexpected success in the Premier League in 2015-16 when the usual contenders for the title all fell away, but Wales were defending champions last year.

Pivac was asked this week whether, after facing calls last year for him to be sacked, he was judged too early.

“Perhaps, but it goes with the territory,” he replied. “It took a while to get it rolling at the Scarlets and ultimately we had some success. People will have their opinions and rightly so; if things do not go well, questions will be asked. That does not bother me in the slightest. When I watch other sports, I am probably quite critical as well. It is human nature.”

The 59-year-old may be referred to by Eddie Jones as a young man, but he has been around long enough to know sport does not run on a straight line. In the past year he has treated failure and success the same, neither despairing nor triumphant.

He is living for the moment but he has also bought himself time, getting even more out of players who had done it all while grooming their successors, smiling his way through. – Guardian