Even a Wales win over England is likely to be cold comfort for Pivac

The Autumn Nations Cup victory over Georgia ended a run of six defeats, but little is expected of the hosts at Parc y Scarlets

Wayne Pivac readies his Wales players to take on England in Llanelli.
Wayne Pivac readies his Wales players to take on England in Llanelli. Photograph: Ben Evans/Huw Evans/Shutterstock

Graham Henry used to compare rugby in Wales with a shower that had a malfunctioning thermostat: it was either too hot or too cold. He spent more than three years as the national side’s head coach from 1998, hailed as the great redeemer during a long winning run only for the cheers to turn to jeers when the victories dried up, and he returned to New Zealand for the sake of his mental health with 18 months left on his contract.

Henry bewailed a lack of proportion and historical awareness. Success was not only expected but demanded, but other than the 1900s, a few years in the 50s and the golden era of the 70s, Wales tended to muddle along. After 1911, they did not win the triple crown until 1950. Their 12 grand slams, apart from 2005, came in four clusters, the last three during the 12 years Warren Gatland was in charge.

His successor, Wayne Pivac, is shivering after a year of icy showers. Last week’s victory over Georgia ended a run of six defeats, but little is expected of them against England at Parc y Scarlets, especially with no spectators. Wales have in the past stirred themselves on the one-off occasion to overcome the team they like to beat above any other, victories in 1967, 1989 and 2007 averting a championship whitewash, but with the country’s four regions struggling to make an impact in the Pro14 never mind the Champions Cup, would success in Llanelli merely mark the final bow of an actor leaving the stage?

“I think there is hope for sure,” said Ged Colleypriest, the founder and host of the Attacking Scrum podcast which for the past four years has provided a forum for Wales fans to rationally discuss the state of the national game. “There is young talent coming through the system, and the squad has a number of world-class players. They should have made a better show of it under Pivac than they have done.

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“There are comparisons between Wales now and the Manchester United side that David Moyes inherited from Sir Alex Ferguson. I think it was inevitable that cracks would appear once Gatland and his management team moved on, but Pivac will not have the luxury of time that he enjoyed at the Scarlets where he made a slow start. The [two-year] break clause in his contract loomed large from the start and, realistically, if the poor results continue, he’ll be lucky to make it to that. When Gatland went on a bad run, he had credit in the bank. Pivac is hugely overdrawn and needs to find a settled team and style of play.”

The former Wales captain Gwyn Jones this week said Wales were “miles behind” England and took aim at the regions, saying they were infected by a losing mentality. The Welsh Rugby Union has recently taken out a £20m loan to fund the four through the pandemic, but it has no input into them nor their academies, one reason why Ryan Jones last month resigned as the governing body’s performance director. He had no direct influence because, unlike Ireland, the system is not joined up.

“Our listeners are split on the reasons it has gone wrong this year,” said Colleypriest. “Some blame the regions, others Pivac. It cannot help that the regions are struggling to compete and a question is why none of them is producing any form of note. Gatland ignored form in the Pro14, recognising that you do not pick the winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup based on a point-to-point race at Chepstow. The regions are underfunded, but for all Ireland’s success in the Champions Cup, they have not reached a World Cup semi-final. It comes down to coaching.”

Wales suffered their worst Six Nations campaign since 2007, the last before Gatland’s arrival. Pivac largely used the players he had inherited, but five of the side to start against England have been given their first caps by him and another five played under him at the Scarlets. With players such as George North, Gareth Davies and Cory Hill overlooked, he is moving on from a remould .

England, with their 6-2 split in favour of forwards on the bench, will look to outmuscle and overpower Wales before letting loose a back division based on stealth and speed rather than size as their head coach, Eddie Jones, scents weakness. “Pivac needs to turn it around,” said Colleypriest, “otherwise the WRU will be looking for a head coach they think can emulate Gatland’s ability to transcend a misfiring regional game and keep the national team performing.”