State of the Nation: Only Warren Gatland can rekindle Wales’ World Cup hopes

Colin Newboult

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the nations. Next up, it’s Wales.

It could not have been a worse year for the Welsh ahead of a huge 2023. Just three victories over the past 12 months has seen their head coach, Wayne Pivac, on the verge of being sacked under 10 months out from the World Cup. The New Zealander took over following Warren Gatland’s departure, but he could now lose his job to the very man he replaced.

Pivac isn’t helped by a governing body which is badly run and poorly funded, but those problems are nothing new for the people who are well versed with Welsh rugby. Gatland himself had to battle with a number of issues, but the national team regularly defied the odds with him in charge.

The ex-Scarlets boss sought to change the style of play when he took over in 2020, bringing the swashbuckling game plan which proved so successful at the regional side to the Principality Stadium, but it has never worked out for the 60-year-old.

Papering over the cracks

They have been far too easy to play against during his tenure, with the aim of creating a free-flowing attack never coming to fruition. In fact, Wales’ most successful period with him in charge came when they played a slightly more conservative style during their 2021 Six Nations title success.

Wales were physical, direct and had a smart kicking game as they went so close to winning yet another Grand Slam, but that tournament only papered over the cracks.

There was certainly more than a hint of fortune about that piece of silverware as their opponents often found themselves down to 14 men. Discipline is a key part of the game and credit must go to the Welsh for keeping theirs, but it was an unprecedented scenario to see them benefit from so many red cards.

As a result, it gave a false impression as to where they actually stood under Pivac. Once everybody got to grips with the clampdown in high tackles, Wales found their rightful place in the world standings. And that was very much in the lower reaches of the top 10 in the rankings.

Their 2022 started abysmally with a 29-7 loss to Ireland before they overcame a disappointing Scotland outfit 20-17 to get their campaign back on track. From thereon in, the matches were always tight but the performances were decidedly unconvincing, with England and France always in control in their Round Three and Four victories.

Confidence was therefore already low when Italy came to town, the real start of the supporters’ dismay as questions began to be asked of Pivac’s viability as an international head coach. The hosts were 21-15 ahead when Ange Capuozzo went on a mazy run, scything through the heart of the opponents’ rearguard and finding Edoardo Padovani to score.

A frustrated Welsh public

From that moment on, the relationship between fans and head coach soured. Although a first-ever victory over the Springboks away from home in a battling 2-1 series defeat eased tensions slightly, the public demanded a much better Autumn Nations Series. But it never came as the All Blacks firstly overwhelmed a timid Wales team to emerge with a 55-23 win at the Principality Stadium.

They improved, especially up front, to beat a tired Argentina but it was the Georgia clash which ultimately decided Pivac’s fate. The Lelos were brilliant as they came from 12-3 down at the break to stun the hosts 13-12 and create history for the developing rugby nation.

It was a result which sent shockwaves around the world but also one which gave the impression that the head coach’s time was numbered. Australia’s incredible comeback a week later only confirmed that, despite Wales producing their best display under Pivac for the first 55 minutes.

In truth, his position is effectively untenable, with Wales, as things stand, nowhere near competing for a World Cup title. Changing the head honcho will not ultimately make things worse and in the shape of Gatland, they at least have someone who knows the system and most of the players, and has worked wonders before.

They say never go back but for Welsh rugby it might be their only option. Yes, there was criticism over his style of play but, as Pivac has perhaps proven with the problems he has faced, it was mightily effective for the players they had.

However, the WRU have to act now. Gatland could well be a man in demand soon with reports that England are set to sack Eddie Jones and offer the three-times British and Irish Lions boss a short-term deal. If the governing body are to replace Pivac than they need to be sure that the 59-year-old will be willing to take up the offer, otherwise they will remarkably be in a worse position than after the Australia loss.

The ageless Alun Wyn

The head coach that is in charge for next year has some job on their hands, however. While it was admirable that Pivac tried to change both the style and mindset of the players, he didn’t have the individuals to play that way.

The recent series also showed why Gatland kept placing his trust in Alun Wyn Jones, despite the lock’s advancing years. The second-row is certainly not the brilliant player he once was, but Wales’ best display of the November internationals came with him in the XV.

There was a noticeable lift in intensity, while he remains their best front five forward in terms of physicality and skill set. Pivac has attempted to fade him out slowly, preferring to play Will Rowlands and Adam Beard together in the engine room with Jones on the bench, but the 37-year-old remains better than either of them.

Whether he can last until the World Cup is the big question though, with Pivac, or more likely his successor, needing to get that sorted ahead of the global tournament in France.

On a positive note, there is talent outside of the front five and particularly in the plethora back-row options they possess. Jac Morgan was outstanding during the Autumn Nations Series and pretty much cemented his spot going into the Six Nations.

Behind the scrum, Louis Rees-Zammit is a bona fide star of the European game and, alongside Rio Dyer and Josh Adams, they are well stocked in the back three, while Nick Tompkins and George North continue to perform well at centre.

If Dan Biggar can get back fit, his partnership with Tomos Williams at half-back is up there among the best in the business, but depth remains a problem. Wales simply do not have a squad that are realistic World Cup challengers, even if they find themselves on the right side of the draw.

At the moment, they will be more worried about getting out a group which contains Australia, Fiji and their conquerors in November, Georgia, than facing either England, Japan, Argentina or Samoa in the quarter-finals, such is the poor state the Welsh are currently in.

The draw is kind enough that a semi-final run is feasible, but that will surely be without Pivac in the hotseat. Only Gatland can save them now.

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