Regional problems can wait as Wales look to paper over the cracks once more

Pivac’s side struck by injuries and poor club form as they slip down the favourite list

 

They are the most successful country of the modern era in the Six Nations, no matter what way you dice it up. They have won six of the last 18 titles, or four of the last ten, and indeed two of the last three. They are Wales.

In the last 18 years those six titles (including three Grand Slams) eclipse the four each from Ireland and England, and three by France. In the last decade, those four titles surpass the three apiece by Ireland and England.

Yet it’s doubtful they’ve ever gone into any of those campaigns as favourites. Last season they were fourth in the betting and, overturning a low-key autumn and poor showing by their regions, won the title in Wayne Pivac’s first Six Nations, the final play of their last game in Paris denying them from winning another Grand Slam.

This season, after a relatively unexceptional Autumn Series compared to France, Ireland and England, followed by their regions losing all 11 matches they played in Europe, Ireland’s opening opponents are fourth favourites again.

“You can understand it to a degree when you see that clubs aren’t performing as they would like and then you throw a few injuries in there,” admitted Pivac, who has had to plan without Elliott Dee, Ken Owens, Alun Wyn Jones, Taulupe Faletau, Dan Lydiate, Josh Macleod, Josh Navidi, Justin Tipuric, Johnny Williams, George North and Leigh Halfpenny.

“We don’t have the biggest player pool in the world, so I think that’s going to be the sum total of it. But when I look at it as part of the management, it’s the jersey and history that has gone before it. Rugby is the number one sport in the country.

“Every young fellah or person who comes into the squad, we have a quick one-on-one with them. It’s every Welshman’s boyhood dream to pull that jersey on and that’s very, very powerful. You can’t underestimate that.

“When the players come in, I know they understand they are a custodian of the jersey. There is no right to it. The players put themselves under immense pressure to perform well not only in games, but also in training because if you don’t prepare well, you don’t play well. There is a lot of hard work going in, and years and years which have gone into the moment they get into camp.”

There is a huge debate in Welsh rugby about the WRU prioritising the national team. “It seems to me that Wales doing really well papers over the cracks a bit,” according to Cardiff Director of Rugby Dai Young, who says the regions are far less competitive than in his first spell coaching the club from 2002 to 2011.

But for Pivac that discussion can be suspended for now.

The regions have been hit even harder by the effects of Covid - enforced quarantine periods for the Scarlets and Cardiff squads, a raft of cancellations and postponements - than the Irish provinces. Yet Pivac said that thanks to the work of the regions, the players are “probably in better shape than we would have imagined”.

Besides, this is Wales in the Six Nations.

“You’d like to think that, out of the vocal people who expect us to win five from five, everyone out there that follows rugby will know exactly where we’re at. We’re undercooked in terms of preparation with a lack of club games, so that’s not great. A lot of teams are in the same boat, some have had more game-time than others.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge, particularly being on the road first up against Ireland. Their clubs are in great form, they were in great form in the autumn, so the challenge probably don’t come bigger than that.

“But if you ask a rugby player if you’d want it any other way, [the answer would be] probably not because you want to go out there and play well in the most volatile situation you can be in, if I can put it that way. It’s what brings out the best in champion players and we’d like to think we’ve got a few champion players in our side.

Opposing each other yet again will be Johnny Sexton and Dan Biggar, who like his equally feisty, longtime rival and fellow Lion, has been made captain of the Welsh side in the absence of Alun Wyn Jones.

“Whenever I get asked who has been the most difficult person to play against of the last 10-12 years, there’s no doubt Johnny’s name would be very near the top,” said Biggar.

“Very similar to myself in terms of the drive, the will to win, scrapping for absolutely everything on the field. It’s a testament to him in how he’s managed to handle himself and keep his form going into his mid or late-30s. I don’t think anyone is sure how old he really is,” quipped Biggar, who is also equally adept in front of the media.

Dan Biggar is once again relishing the prospect of going up against Johnny Sexton. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Dan Biggar is once again relishing the prospect of going up against Johnny Sexton. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

“He’s going really strong and I’ve got a huge amount of time for Johnny.

There are very few people more deserving of 100 caps in international rugby than Johnny. It’s always a challenge playing against Johnny. We may not be the best of friends for 80 minutes on the pitch and (can be) quite narky at each other. But away from the field, he’s an absolute pleasure to deal with and I have a huge amount of time for him.”

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