It has been 20 months since Wales lifted the Six Nations trophy as Grand Slam champions. Wayne Pivac came in as head coach following the nation’s fourth-place finish at the Rugby World Cup in Japan, Warren Gatland departing for pastures new in his native New Zealand.
Since then, Wales’ pedigree has fallen, their new leader being questioned on his ability to lead the country’s rugby team. This Autumn alone has seen two of his coaches leave their positions.
Sam Warburton, the country’s former captain, stepped down from his role as a technical coach, specialising in the breakdown, prior to Wales’ Six Nations finale against Scotland and Byron Hayward left his position as defence coach five days before the Autumn Nations Cup began.
Hayward and Pivac had worked together for six and a half years, the pair collaborating to bring a Pro12 title to the Parc y Scarlets in 2017. Attack coach, Stephen Jones, also followed Pivac from Scarlets to the national setup, with Jonathan Humphreys joining as forwards coach from Glasgow, whilst Neil Jenkins is the only coach to remain from Gatland’s time in charge.
Since then, Wales have come under criticism for lacking in the areas they were most proficient in under Gatland, their defence, collisions, kicking game and aerial game the four key areas to have declined in the past 12 months or so.
“I think they’re just trying to find a balance,” Gatland said in October, following Wales’ pre-Six Nations finale loss to France. “They’ve talked about playing a new way and that’s absolutely fantastic and I hope they’re able to achieve that.
“They’ve just got to make sure they’re pragmatic about the way they approach things. Sometimes for us, it was trying to do the simple things right.
“We worked hard on our defence, we worked hard on our kicking and aerial game, we did contact every day because those are important factors about trying to get the best out of your players. That’s what international rugby is about.”
Former Wales prop, Gethin Jenkins took over from Sam Warburton as technical coach in October, his role expanding to defence following the departure of Hayward. It is a far cry from the heady heights the rugby nation has experienced in the past 13 years and they come up against a side this weekend who are in a far different place to them.
Eddie Jones’ England have hardly skipped a beat since their World Cup Final loss just over 12 months ago. Jones remains at the helm, with John Mitchell remaining as defence coach, former England Sevens head of programme, Simon Amor has come in as attack coach and the man whose South Africa pack dismantled England to take home the Webb Ellis Cup, Matt Proudfoot, who joined as forwards coach.
With such limited changes in the coaching group, England have remained consistent, winning this years’ Six Nations Championship, as Wales finished fifth, and winning each of their opening two Autumn Nations Cup fixtures with ease.
The core of England’s matchday squads have remained largely the same, Owen Farrell, Ben Youngs, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola consistently in the side, with new faces quickly becoming regulars for their country, the likes of Ben Earl, Jonny Hill and Ollie Lawrence impressing in England shirts so far.
Pivac has given 11 debuts to players this calendar year, it very much feeling as though the New Zealander is testing players out, finding out who his core players may be in the long run with the 2023 Rugby World Cup in mind.
“I think, if you would have looked 12 months ago, England playing Wales, Wales would have had a higher number of test caps than we would have had and teams evolve,” Eddie Jones said on Thursday.
“You don’t know whether you are looking at a two year, three year, four year cycle for your team to change. But you continue looking to upgrade your team, bring new players in, look for better players than you have got at the moment.”
An unavoidable fact is that whoever took over from Gatland was going to face an uphill battle. Gatland took charge of 151 Wales games, finishing his time with a 56 percent win percentage. When you add on the four Six Nations titles that the former Wales coach lifted, it is a tenure that is staggeringly successful.
The loss of defence coach Shaun Edwards to France, who beat Wales in Cardiff in the Spring, highlighted the building process that this new coaching group are in, as they find their way into getting their processes correct.
Wales fans are used to winning, as are the country’s players. What might have to be asked is if they would rather win now or win a World Cup in Paris?
At the start of this month, 58-year-old Pivac said that he and the Wales group were unhappy with their recent run of form, but remained steadfast in his messaging that all that was being done at this moment in time was to give them their best shot of becoming world champions.
“From day one it’s been about submitting a plan through the interview process, it’s about building a side capable of winning a World Cup in 2023,” Pivac said. “We know we’re not entirely happy with the results.”