Wayne Pivac leads his Welsh team into a new era of rugby as the new coach looks to build upon the work of Warren Gatland, with the former-coach leaving Wales as the Six Nations Grand Slam champions of 2019.
What a year 2019 was for Wales as the rugby mad nation put paid to any ideas that the size of a county matters. The Red Dragon were in scintillating form right across the 2019 Six Nations campaign as they swept all before them aside with some supreme performances, although this often leant heavily on the defensive capabilities of the side rather than their attacking intent, which is something new coach Wayne Pivac will want to remedy in his time with the side.
🏴 Wales head coach Wayne Pivac has named his first #GuinnessSixNations squad, including five uncapped players.
📋 WillGriff John, Will Rowlands, Nick Tompkins, Johnny McNicholl a Louis Rees-Zammit yw’r chwaraewyr di-gap yn y garfan.
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) 15 January 2020
In 2019, Wales began what ultimately became a Grand Slam winning campaign with one of the most interesting performances in a Six Nations match for some time. Warren Gatland’s men trailed 16-0 at half-time at the Stade de France after a fine performance from the home team but, with the conditions only deteriorating as the rain came down, Wales were able to grind their way back into the match in typical Warren Gatland style. The error-strewn performance of Wales in the first-half was flipped in the second as France let their advantage slip as the handling errors and poor decisions crept into their game as Tomos Williams and George North scored tries, with the latter benefitting twice to help Wales across the line in very testing circumstances. At the time, many looked at that performance and largely wrote Wales off as winners of the competition but, in hindsight, it should have been a game in which people talked about Wales’ Grand Slam winning title credentials being on full show with their never say never attitude.
Following this win they went on to edge past Italy in Rome in a 26-15 win before they played in their toughest match of the tournament. England arrived on the back of impressive wins over Ireland and France and led 10-3 at half-time after Curry’s try. However, a gripping second-half fightback saw the momentum turned on it’s head as the Welsh scored a try through Cory Hill before Dan Biggar pinged across a pinpoint cross-field kick that winger Josh Adams juggled before grasping the ball and dotting down to send the Welsh fans into delirious celebration. From there, the Welsh simply would not be stopped, with wins over Scotland and Ireland, with the latter particularly impressive, seeing Gatland clinch a Grand Slam crown in his final Six Nations match with the side. Fairytales are real it would seem.
While Wales failed to really get going at the World Cup with their style of play gritty and wins heavily dependent on their defence, they were able to battle their way to fourth at the tournament. Their most impressive performance came against Australia in their second pool game as they beat the Aussies 29-25 to all but secure top spot in their group with a fine first-half performance that was followed by a nervy finish that had everyone watching on the edge of their seats. They once again came back in very impressive style against France in the quarter-finals before they were outlasted in a war of attrition by eventual winners South Africa in a 19-16 loss. While their hopes were eventually crushed by a very good Springbok side, the optimism that this Welsh side can take forward is massive, with the superb era of Gatland making way for Pivac to build an attacking flair on what is a very strong defensive base from this Wales side.
In the 2020 Six Nations, nobody will argue that Wales will want to defend their Grand Slam crown, but very few believe they will actually do it. Pivac’s side has a different look to Gatland’s last team with a number of debutants in the squad seeing the side looking to the future. However, whenever a new manager comes in it can often see old and new styles clashing, with players sometimes guilty of playing in the same style their old coach wanted of them, rather than putting into effect the wishes of their current coach.
Despite this, Wales know that they can fall back upon a fantastic base of players. The likes of captain Alun Wyn Jones, Liam Williams and Ken Owens are all world class players, while even the now less-effective forces of George North and Leigh Halfpenny can do a job sometimes. It will be incredibly interesting to see how Pivac is able to weave together the old greats, the new talents, and the returning players in his first true Welsh squad. Indeed, the inclusion of the soon-to-be ex-Toulon scrum-half Rhys Webb will be interesting as Wales went from not really having an international quality nine when he left for France to boasting some truly superb talent, especially in the form of Gareth Davies, who we feel is a fine talent and will only get better.
Alongside Webb in the squad come the old heads as mentioned, along with some uncapped players in the form of forwards Will Rowlands and WillGriff John, while backs Nick Tompkins and Johnny McNicholl could yet feature. Perhaps the most exciting of inclusions in the squad comes in the form of Louis Rees-Zammit though, with the Gloucester winger tearing it up out wide in the Premiership this season, while he was reportedly courted by Eddie Jones and England before announcing his loyalties lie with Wales.
In this current squad we feel there is a brilliant balance that has been added to by Pivac. Ken Owens is a fantastic scrummager and hooker and brings a physicality that can turn games, Justin Tipuric could get into the team solely for what he can do in the ruck with his ability to force the opposition into infringing and stealing the ball supreme, and that’s without even mentioning his athleticism, while having the powerful and bustling presence of the returning Taulupe Faletau to come is incredibly exciting from a Welsh point of view, and then there is Alun Wyn Jones. Honestly, the captain could just stand there and do nothing for 80 minutes and such is the magnitude of his presence that the other 14 men would be galvanised by him, playing above and beyond what they would see as their very best. In the backs they have the best full-back in the game in Liam Williams, with his ability under the high ball making the Welsh backline an incredibly safe one, while he is a real threat going forward and he links so well with Josh Adams who just scores tries.
Negatively, we feel Wales’ real problems come at fly-half, 14 and full-back. At fly-half, Wales boast a supremely gifted kicker in Dan Biggar, with the Northampton 10 supreme from the tee, while he is incredible under the high ball, a willing runner and fantastic in defence. Jostling for position with him is Gareth Anscombe, a player nowhere near as physical as Biggar, but more creative with the ball in hand and a better runner, both able to create chances for himself and his teammates. While neither player is a weakness in any way, the problem comes when Wales have to decide which to utilise, with one predominantly defensive and safe, while the other has the attacking flair but is less consistent.
At 14, George North has been a great servant to Welsh rugby and his 39 tries in 91 appearances shows he is a deadly finisher. However. injuries and concussions in particular have plagued North and he is not the same all-action and fearless player he once was. Of course, we are not downplaying his ability, with the winger one of the best finishers of his generation. However, with exciting new talent waiting in the wings (if you’ll pardon the pun), we question whether North will hold onto the number 14 shirt for that much longer, or whether he should. Indeed, a problem position for Wales right now is at centre, with a number of first choice centres missing through injury. Experiments have been done with North playing in midfield but he has failed to really shine there. Indeed, he played there for the Ospreys against Saracens recently and was near-anonymous, while the more consistently physical action of playing in the centre perhaps does not play into his talents anymore.
The final problem position comes at 15, where Leigh Halfpenny is used far too much in our opinion. Halfpenny’s move to Toulon saw his career take a turn, but he has since returned to the Scarlets and is playing better. Once a poster boy for the Welsh rugby team, the usually industrious full-back was often seen taking a lot of high ball, running at the opposition, starting attacks and bisecting the posts with ease. However, over the last few years he has lost that attacking ability, while his kicking has not been perfect which, with the likes of Biggar and his accurate boot around, makes Halfpenny’s position far weaker. Our question is how long will Wales hold onto a player that we think is a shadow of his former-self.
Wales’ Six Nations hopes will largely be pinned on their away form this time out, with their toughest games of the campaign coming against Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in round two before a trip to Twickenham to face England in the penultimate cluster of fixtures. After Ireland were embarrassed by Wales in a 25-7 loss at the Principality Stadium last time out and England saw their Grand Slam hopes ended by Wales, the pair will be desperate to ensure that they inflict some scoreline pain on the Welsh, especially if this sets Pivac’s reign off in the worst possible style. However, with that defensive solidity of Wales something that is not likely to have disappeared over night coupled with Pivac’s penchant for attacking, which he showed when managing the Scarlets and Wales against the Barbarians recently, we think that he could win a lot of fans with a different style for the Welsh which could also win a lot more games with more tries.
With this in mind, we are very tempted by the prospect of backing a top try scorer to be in the ranks of this Welsh side. Rees-Zammit may attract some for a top try scorer bet but we think that Wales options on the wing are such that he may have to remain contented with biding his time and just enjoying the experience of his first Welsh camp. Indeed, with Josh Adams and North the first choices for Gatland and in Pivac’s squad along with likely full-back Liam Williams and cover from Halfpenny meaning he can play on the wing, the youngster may only have a handful of minutes across the tournament. However, as we don’t know Pivac’s views on the player himself and his own policy on youngsters, we may yet see the Gloucester flyer given his fair share of chances this spring.
Instead, we are plumping for Josh Adams to once again lead the way for Wales with tries scored. Adams looked very good last year despite only crossing for three tries, but he clearly saved his best for the World Cup as he scored an impressive seven tries to finish as the top try scorer at the competition. If Pivac is to give his players licence to get the ball through the hands as they look to open up the space, Adams will relish his position on the wing. The Cardiff Blues’ star put his speed, power and intelligence on full show across 2019, but what was most impressive was the way he scored seven tries at the World Cup while barely seeing any of the ball in some games. Clever finishes and good positioning are vital to the way Adams plays and if he is given time and space, he can hurt any team.
While we are predicting that Adams will finish as the top try scorer in the competition, we do not think Wales will finish as the top team. Of course, they have all of the tools to win and clinch another Grand Slam and they will give a damn good go at defending their crown, such is the Welsh passion, but we think that a settled team like England will win the competition instead. However, we do not think the change in management will ultimately ruin Wales’ year, with a second-place finish likely one that would be seen as positive in the grand scheme of things, especially right at the start of a new World Cup cycle. Wales to finish second is currently going at 11/4 with Paddy Power, and we feel that is their most likely finish.
Pivac’s new era will likely see a lot of fans scratching their heads as they watch those same players that were once tasked with going out and defending with attacking something of an after-thought suddenly attempting to play outrageous offloads and running the line under very different instructions this year. We are genuinely excited to see what 2020 and beyond will bring for Wales and Pivac, and if the former-Scarlets coach can take Wales up to another level with a flair we have not see from the side in red for some time, perhaps Gatland’s status as the undisputed number one in Welsh rugby folklore may come under threat.
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