When Wayne Pivac sat down with his Wales squad to outline his expectations for the 2020 Six Nations this week, he did so with the Championship’s trophy alongside him.
The message was clear. Pivac knows he must continue the success his fellow New Zealander and predecessor Warren Gatland delivered to the Welsh rugby public over the course of 12 trophy-laden years in charge, yet he also plans to evolve the team in red into a different, more attacking beast.
This is the new Wales, the class of 2020 who have a long-term goal in the 2023 World Cup but also plan on emulating the Grand Slam and Triple Crown success of 2019 in the here and now.
Many men would be intimidated by following in Gatland’s footsteps, but Pivac has made an assured, canny, and solid start to his tenure. Of course what happens on the field will be the real barometer by which he will be judged and that is still to come, but the initial signs are positive.
“For me our very, very simple goal is we’re here to win the Championship,” said Pivac, touching the gleaming trophy in Wales’ team room at their training base on the outskirts of Cardiff.
“It’s a different group and certainly a different coaching group. There are some players from last season who aren’t here, for various reasons and some new boys.
It’s a fresh start and we want to go out there and win it all over again. That has to be our attitude.
So, how will Wales fare in the next seven weeks?
There is certainly an air of uncertainty about the men in red. Gatland and his assistants Rob Howley, Shaun Edwards, and Robin McBryde have departed. Now Wales are led by Pivac with Stephen Jones, Jonathan Humphreys, Byron Hayward, and Sam Warburton working under his guidance.
All five men — especially Pivac and Jones — plan to take Wales’ attacking game to another level and the structure of the team’s training sessions has changed slightly though not completely altered.
Pivac would be unwise — foolish even — to totally rip up the Gatland game plan, such was its success over more than a decade and Wales will still rely on brutal fitness, a relentless red wall in defence, and immense physicality to shut down opposing defences and help them come out on top.
What Pivac wants to do is marry that with a more vibrant attacking game.
He has admitted it will take time to implement, but change is coming to Wales whether their players like it or not. With 134 Wales caps, nine for the British & Irish Lions, and three Grand Slams under his belt, iconic captain Alun Wyn Jones has been there, seen it, and done it in a Welsh jersey.
He will surely end his career (just don’t try and do it for him) as Test rugby’s most capped player, but if he is willing to adapt his game at the age of 34 due to Pivac’s demands, then those around him had better do so too.
“There will be some who sit in the shadows and say ‘I hope it (change) doesn’t come to me’ or there will be others who will have a go,” said Jones.
We’re very fortunate we’ve got a group who are relishing the opportunity to be challenged and add value moving forward.
Pivac’s balancing of the old and the new Wales was summed up by his first Six Nations selection. For the tournament opener against Italy on Saturday he has named only two of the five uncapped players in his squad in wing Johnny McNicholl and Saracens centre Nick Tompkins.
McNicholl faced the Barbarians in November, but the Azzurri will be his first Test cap while Tompkins is poised to do likewise from the bench. Pivac likes McNicholl, another of his fellow Kiwis. The back three operator was a key man when Pivac’s Scarlets won what was then the Guinness PRO12 in 2017.
Pivac’s hand has been forced, to a degree, at scrum-half by an injury to Gareth Davies, but the selection of Tomos Williams to start is an intriguing one.
Williams is young, boasts a high tempo game, and should suit the style of play Pivac wants to implement down to the ground. He partners a revitalised Dan Biggar — who is playing some fine rugby — at half back in what is an experienced side, even without injured 2019 stars Gareth Anscombe and Jonathan Davies.
George North begins at outside centre in the absence of Davies.
“The foundations Warren and the other coaches built were fantastic and we had great success.
The new guys have added their part to it,” said wing Josh Adams, who starts against Italy after finishing as the World Cup’s top try scorer with seven.
“I’d like to think we’re developing our game. We won’t be the perfect team come Saturday, but I definitely think we’ll put teams under a lot of pressure and hopefully, it’ll be exciting to watch.
"When you’re playing for Wales you have to perform — especially in the back-three, as we have amazing players and stiff competition there.
"Hopefully with the way we want to go about things the boys out wide will get the ball a bit more. Wayne has said it. We are not here to defend the title, we are here to win the trophy again. That’s the mentality. We have to be ruthless and take our chances.
There is no reason why we can’t win it again.
Pivac has resisted the urge to plunge 18-year-old Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit straight into Test rugby despite his 10 tries in 12 games for the Cherry and Whites this season.
Still, Wales look in good shape. They will have too much for Italy — who have never won in Cardiff and not beaten Wales since 2007 — but Pivac will want his team to make a statement.
Some free-flowing running rugby and a bonus-point win would help because there are stiffer tests — Ireland in Dublin in round two, specifically — to come.
Andy Farrell’s men in green will likely face a Wales side with a win under their belt and certainly with further improvements to be made, but also one still boasting the element of the unknown.
That is what is so fascinating about Wales in this Six Nations. Ireland, Italy, and France are all in the same boat with new coaches and players. Only time will tell who beds in quickest.
Leigh Halfpenny; Johnny McNicholl, George North, Hadleigh Parkes, Josh Adams; Dan Biggar, Tomos Williams; Wyn Jones, Ken Owens, Dillon Lewis, Jake Ball, Alun Wyn Jones (capt), Aaron Wainwright, Justin Tipuric, Taulupe Faletau.
Ryan Elias, Rob Evans, Leon Brown, Cory Hill, Ross Moriarty, Rhys Webb, Jarrod Evans, Nick Tompkins.