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Wales embracing Wayne’s world and doing it the Pivac way

Kiwi coach has an attacking philosophy which could help re-route European rugby

It looked so easy. The RDS in 2017. Aviva Stadium a week later.

Leinster and Munster ripped to shreds as the Scarlets streaked to an unforeseen Pro 12 title.

Doing it the Wayne Pivac way; beat the cover to the edge with rapid passing and it seemed like the Welsh had two extra players on the field as scrumhalf Gareth Davies sprinted past heel turning defenders.

Leinster and particularly Munster were forewarned but when they clogged the 15-metre channel Scott Williams or Aaron Shingler went hard through midfield. Both Irish provinces beaten out the gate, humiliated by half-time, prompting the WRU to lock down Warren Gatland's successor 18 months before the end of an era.

The Pivac method is not guided by positions, rather the number of strike runners and distributors he needs

"The 14-man Scarlets, yeah," Tadhg Furlong remembered the loss despite Steff Evans red card before the interval. "It is about being solid and not over-spacing just because they play with width. It's about being smart, being aware there could be galloping runs coming right at you through the middle.

“It is just about fronting up,” added Furlong matter of factly. “You look at defensive systems back then and how they coped with that sort of attack compared to now. The game has moved on a small bit. Their attack has as well, obviously. Nobody stands still.”

(Well, except Ireland in 2019.)

Anyway, Leinster turned a momentous corner in 2018, violently denying efforts by then Scarlets duo Tadhg Beirne and James Davies to slow ball in both the Pro 14 final and Champions Cup semi-final, to resume the natural order.

Same could be said about the Wales Grand Slam last year as Ireland regressed into a team that the general public struggle to follow with blind faith.

Trust gets earned and lost in the same manner. "True grit," that Andy Farrell referenced as the key ingredient in victory over Scotland, will not suffice against a Welsh side that guarantees the same levels of commitment coupled with increasing glimpses of Pivac's idea of total rugby.

“I think that’s what we saw at the weekend,” said Farrell, “and we saw a little bit of what Wayne brings from his Scarlets days.”

What exactly does he mean?

“Well, you see two of the forwards sprint off to the width straight away, which says a lot of where they’re trying to go,” Farrell explained. “It’s funny because you would think that you’d need to get your spacing right defensively to manage that width but then they start playing through you.”

Finding space

That’s Ireland coach and prop singing off the same hymn sheet in different rooms on different days.

Such knowledge doesn't necessarily mean they will handle what Wales are bringing to Dublin for a fixture that tends to decree success or failure for both countries in the Six Nations.

The Pivac method is not guided by positions, rather the number of strike runners and distributors he needs, with Saracens centre Nick Tompkins primed to strike the killer note.

As Youtuber Squidge Rugby succinctly put it: “Gatland rugby (Warrenball) is about creating space, Pivac rugby is about finding space.”

Shane Williams, the slipperiest dragon of them all, agreed: "Wales are so much better when they get the ball away from the breakdown as quick as possible. Rely on their fitness and pace to get into the space. The 13 channel in rugby now is a huge area to attack I think."

Ask around about Pivac and a decent man is also painted as a no nonsense task master.

When as Auckland coach he discovered that Malakai Fekitoa - the current Wasps centre, who came from Tonga as a teenager on scholarship to Wesley College - was living in his car to support 15 people back on the island, he took the future All Black into his home.

"He coached me when I first started with Auckland," said Isa Nacewa. "Really knows how to motivate a team to play for each other. By doing this he also sets a pretty high standard, a hard standard too. Calls a spade a spade."

More importantly, how did he get here?

Simon Easterby must shoulder most of the blame.

Amidst hooting and hollering in the Ireland coaches soundproof box last Saturday, when CJ Stander’s svelte body locked over Scottish ball, there sat a serene Easterby. Perhaps silenced by habit or he instantly realised a 22-year-old hooker on debut had to nail his first lineout to guarantee victory.

You'll hear it over and over, but there is nobody better at man-management

Ross Byrne sliced the penalty into the west lower as Furlong was helped off the pitch as the clock struck 78 minutes. Ronán Kelleher over threw the runway as neither Devin Toner nor Peter O'Mahony took to the sky. Toner subsequently took the rap as Mathieu Raynal awarded Scotland a free-kick for "closing the gap."

Easterby’s defence - his new brief with the lineout also remaining his responsibility - held firm for five phases, until Josh van der Flier forced an error.

Again, Farrell’s fist concussed thin air as Easterby - the eternal number two we could be led to believe - celebrated in a more subdued manner. The scrum caused one last palpitation when Cian Healy’s head popped out before Byrne punted into O’Connell Gardens.

Easterby could be forgiven for thinking this week of that sliding doors moment over six years ago when, as Llanelli’s head coach, he travelled 11,000 miles to recruit a forwards coach who rapidly turned into not only his but Gatland’s successor.

“There were two factors why I chose Scarlets,” said Wayne Pivac in August 2014.

"The fact that Simon Easterby jumped on a plane and came to New Zealand rather than a lot of talks going on for a long period of time. And as a young boy growing up listening to the All Blacks play Llanelli in 1972 on the radio back home, I've never forgotten that moment," added the former constable at Takapuna police station.

“I’ve worked with good cops and bad cops,” added Shane Williams.

"Steve Hansen was a former cop as well, and I was petrified of him.

"I suppose you do need your good cop, bad cop but having spoken to Wayne, he seems more like a good cop to me. The thing is, Stephen Jones would be a good cop in my eyes as well. Not a nasty bone in his body. I've never seen him lose his temper. Very straight, which is what you need I suppose. And there's no Shaun Edwards now either so I don't know where the bad cop is really."

Williams misses the point about Pivac being a real cop in some rough areas.

"You'll hear it over and over, but there is nobody better at man-management." former All Black Xavier Rush, captain to Pivac's coach at Auckland, told the Daily Telegraph. "Sure, he could play the bad cop and if someone wasn't giving their all they'd be out.

Signs of excellence

“Wayne was a copper on the beat before going into coaching. He carried a gun to do that job and even in the worst-case scenario he won’t need one of those in Wales.”

Graham Henry doesn't scoop up any 36-year-old assistant, after Pivac's career as a lock was cut short by a mangled knee, if there isn't signs of a hot streak and technical excellence.

Since, he has lived a coaching life with more success than failure.

Pivac had yet to settle in Llanelli when, in July 2014, Easterby was hired as Ireland forwards coach, replacing John Plumtree, who is about to oversee the All Blacks pack, so the main gig at Scarlets passed to the number two.

What we are getting at is Easterby could be Wales coach by now.

Instead, he invested in an IRFU career over the club he served as a player for all but the first of 12 years as a professional flanker.

Pivac is the fourth New Zealander to be named coach of Wales, following the deep imprints of Ted (Henry), Shag (Hansen) and Gatty.

When Henry took the gig in 1999, Auckland choose Pivac to take over.

By 2003, after being voted New Zealand’s coach of the year, he supped from the poisoned chalice that is Fijian rugby. The way he coaches must have made the opportunity to put Rupeni Caucaunibuca and friends through their paces irresistible. In three years he only capped Caucau twice, victories over Italy and Samoa in June 2006, before resigning in frustration the January before the 2007 World Cup (when the mesmeric Pacific Islanders sent Welsh rugby into tail spin after eliminating them in the Pool stages, which heralded Gatland’s 12 year reign that yielded three grand slams).

There followed a three-year gap in Pivac's professional coaching CV but Auckland had not forgotten him and in 2011 he replaced Mark Anscombe, who took over the New Zealand Under-20s en route to two seasons in Belfast.

Pivac, via Easterby’s invitation, became the latest son of Auckland to wander north in 2014 with an attacking philosophy that might just re-route European rugby.

“I think everyone’s getting carried away with the wide, expansive game that they play and it’s great to watch and I think they’re doing it really well,” said Farrell.

“But the same old traditions of Welsh rugby that we’ve seen over the last 10 years under Warren, it’s still there and rightly so. Their kicking game is excellent, their kick chase is good, their line speed is good, the width across the field defensively is pretty good, they’re pretty clinical in the opposition 22 and they’re a threat carrying the ball as well. If you throw in to that pot some great individual players, they’re a great team.”

Sounds ominous.