Warren Gatland’s final words as Wales’s head coach a year ago after they had finished fourth in the World Cup resonated long into the Tokyo night. Reflecting on his 12 years in charge, during which they had risen from 10th in the world rankings to first for a few weeks in 2019, he put on a rare show of emotion.
“We feel we have put respect back into Wales as an international team,” he said. “Because of what we have done and what we have achieved, it would break my heart if Wales went back into the doldrums. There’s an opportunity for the new group to come in and build on what we have created and to improve on it. I just want them to continue.”
Wales have played six Tests since Gatland’s departure and lost five. The doldrums is the next stop for his successor Wayne Pivac, a fellow New Zealander whose coaching philosophy is significantly different. He places greater emphasis on risk and continuity but he has found it tricky to change the habits of players who, with the exception of Alun Wyn Jones, had not worked under another Wales head coach and were inured to the way of the previous regime.
Pivac needs a result in Wales’s Autumn Nations Cup opener against Ireland in Dublin on Friday night and his selection has been conservative and defensive, as if looking to harness the qualities that made Wales under Gatland so hard to subdue. The only change from the side that lost to Scotland in Llanelli at the end of the Six Nations is the return of the flanker Justin Tipuric, who pulled out on the morning of that match with tonsillitis.
Pivac needs to expose more players who owe their place to him, but defensive concerns about Nick Tompkins have led to the centre’s omission from the 23 and Ireland’s precise kicking game has kept out the Gloucester wing Louis Rees-Zammit. Liam Williams, Wales’s best attacking option at full-back, is on the flank and Leigh Halfpenny at 15.
Under Gatland players knew exactly what was expected of them and they had the defence coach Shaun Edwards to answer to if they left the field with an unemptied tank. It is not difficult to imagine how he would have reacted to the passive performance against Scotland.
By sacking the defence coach Byron Hayward after that defeat, and keeping faith with a losing team, Pivac has pointed the blame away from his players. With a small playing pool he needs them, but how much is left in some of them after, in some cases, a decade at the top and no little success? Is the hunger still there?
Like Pivac, Andy Farrell is taking charge of his first autumn campaign after succeeding Joe Schmidt. He has been more relaxed in his selection after the defeat in France ended their quest for the Six Nations title. Conor Murray and Keith Earls have been left on the bench as he gives James Lowe and Jamison Gibson-Park their first starts on a night when Johnny Sexton and George North, if he gets on, will make their 100th Test appearance.
Farrell is trying to free Ireland from their tactical straitjacket, and like Pivac knows it will take time. The lack of a crowd will help Wales if they generate the energy Scotland plundered in Llanelli, but if they are to win in Dublin for the first time since 2015, it would be less Pivac’s success than Gatland’s, a problem deferred. He needs to mould the team in his own image, but after five straight defeats, the future is on hold. The priority is avoiding the doldrums.