Wayne Pivac faces make or break Six Nations with Wales

Adam Kyriacou

Next in our set of previews ahead of the Six Nations we examine the prospects of last year’s fifth place finishers, Wayne Pivac’s Wales.

Pivac endured a difficult first season in charge of Wales with the 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam winners claiming just two wins in the calendar year.

Despite the struggles for the new boss, Wales did have a few moments to savour and it’s worth noting the New Zealander has tried to replenish his ageing squad, Callum Sheedy, Ioan Lloyd, Shane Lewis-Hughes, Kieran Hardy, Johnny Williams and Louis Rees-Zammit all making their debuts under Pivac.

But ahead of the 2021 campaign, he likely faces a make or break tournament with his future as Wales boss looking uncertain. Two home games against England and Ireland await while they travel to Italy, France and Scotland for their other three fixtures.

Pivac was expected to bring an attractive and expansive style of play to the table, as was displayed during his time in Llanelli coaching the Scarlets. The region played some spectacular rugby, but that style has yet to appear on the international stage, as Pivac showed an inability to adapt when needed.

If Wales’ fortunes are to improve this campaign, the attack will need to be much better.

Last year

After Warren Gatland ended his tenure with a defeat to South Africa in the World Cup semi-final, hopes were high Pivac could have a seamless transition into the next phase of Welsh rugby. That proved to be the opposite as Wales flopped.

The 2019 Grand Slam winners claimed just one win in the 2020 edition, against Italy on the opening day of the tournament when they racked up a bonus-point victory.

That proved to be as good as it got as Wales lost four straight games to end up in fifth place, their worst finish since 2017 when Gatland was on sabbatical.

Wales lost by 10 points against Ireland in Dublin before narrowly falling to defeat against France in Cardiff, England and Scotland in their final three matches of the tournament.

Excluding the game against Italy, Wales mustered a mere eight tries in the remaining four games of the tournament, and scored only 119 points while conceding 98.

This year

Wales’ hopes of reclaiming the Six Nations crown are unlikely at best, Pivac’s likely focus will instead be on improvement on last season’s disappointment.

Wales bookend their tournament at home to Andy Farrell’s Ireland, who they struggled against just over two months ago in the Autumn Nations Cup, and finish their campaign in Paris against the ever improving France, both of which they are unlikely to win.

Their campaign will therefore likely depend on the middle rounds of the tournament.

Pivac’s men will travel to Edinburgh and Rome for clashes against Scotland and Italy, games which they will be expected to win. Sandwiched in the middle of those two fixtures is a date with England in Cardiff, a clash which could be pivotal to Pivac’s tenure.

The draw isn’t ideal for the Welsh so should the nation claim three wins it will be viewed as a positive showing.

Key players

A lot will depend on the back-row and their ability to force turnovers, Justin Tipuric will look to be at the forefront of everything positive for Wales. Tipuric enjoyed a strong year for region and country in 2020, form which has seen him become one of the first names on the teamsheet for Wales.

The return of Josh Navidi has given cause for optimism. Prior to last Friday’s rescheduled clash with the Scarlets in Llanelli, Navidi hadn’t played rugby since August, with the back-row struggling to deal with the effects of a concussion. Navidi’s return looks set to bolster Wales’ back-row and give Tipuric the running mate who helped him cause chaos on the field in 2019.

As for the backline, fly-halfย Dan Biggar is an exceptional playmaker and will be responsible for helping the rejuvenated George North and ever improving Josh Adams find space. The two speed merchants enjoyed a strong end to 2020 and will hope, along with Welsh fans, that form carries over to 2021.

Players to watch

Johnny Williams will likely be the one to watch for Wales as he looks to make the inside centre spot his own.

Prior to Williams’ arrival on the international scene the jersey had been vacated, with Hadleigh Parkes leaving the regional game to go ply his trade in Japan. However, Williams appeared to change that after making a sizable impact in his debut against Georgia last autumn.

The former Newcastle Falcon only arrived in regional rugby last August, but made an immediate impact with his hard running and playmaking ability as he earned an immediate call-up to the international stage.

Look for Williams to continue that form and become Jonathan Davies’ permanent midfield partner in Wales’ starting XV.

We’re also keeping an eye on veteran Alun Wyn Jones as the second-row looks to recapture his best form after a difficult 2020. While he needs no extra motivation when pulling on the red jersey, there’s a British & Irish Lions tour looming large so he’ll need to be on top of his game in order to impress his old boss Gatland.

Prospects

Wales’ championship prospects look bleak at best so their focus will be on getting a positive response after a tough year in 2020. It will be a serious test for Pivac, who will be tasked with getting major improvement on the one win from the last campaign.

The draw which sees them travel to Paris and Edinburgh appears daunting, as does hosting Ireland and England in Cardiff. However, if the Welsh manage to muster three wins and earn a third place finish, Pivac would likely be satisfied.

Wales have been boosted by the return of Navidi and will benefit from having a rejuvenated North in their squad. However, with the ever improving France and England blocking their path of yet another Six Nations crown and Ireland and Scotland looking even more formidable, Wales are likely to destined for another low-table finish. Fifth.

Fixtures

Sunday, February 7 v Ireland (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, February 13 v Scotland (Murrayfield Stadium)
Saturday, February 27 v England (Principality Stadium)
Saturday, March 13 v Italy (Stadio Olimpico)
Saturday, March 20 v France (Stade de France)