Wales have decided on their new coach – the chameleon-like Wayne Pivac will take charge after the next World Cup. Graham Thomas looks at the man who adapts so well, he only gives away his origins through his accent.
Wayne Pivac is the outsider who blends in so well it’s hard to recall a time when he wasn’t a local.
Pivac will become the fourth New Zealander to coach Wales when he takes over from Warren Gatland in 15 months’ time.
But unlike his predecessors – Gatland, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry – the 55-year-old Scarlets chief has already surveyed the lay of the land, noted the customs and idioms at play on foreign soil, and for the most part has the measure of the locals.
When Henry arrived from New Zealand it was explained to him that the wise thing for a Wales coach was to decline or accept invitations to speak at local rugby clubs. The poor judgement was to ask about the fee.
Hansen felt it was okay to place performance levels ahead of results, indefinitely. He may have got away with that in Scotland, as Vern Cotter later seemed to, but not in Wales.
Gatland has fitted in more comfortably – perhaps thanks to his years spent in Ireland and with Wasps – but can still occasionally light fires in the wrong places, such as his decision to pick nearby Welsh fringe players to add to his Lions squad last year.
Pivac has ruffled a few feathers in his four years at the Scarlets, but he has rarely looked as if he didn’t grasp the ground rules.
“I wouldn’t have put myself through this process if it wasn’t something I could do and was really passionate about,” says Pivac. “The biggest thing for me was having lived in the country for four years, I don’t see myself as an outside coach coming to do Wales. I see myself as a Welsh coach. I am obviously from New Zealand but I don’t feel like an outsider.”
Transitions for Pivac – whose grandparents emigrated from Croatia to New Zealand for a new life – have generally been smooth.
He moved seamlessly from playing to coaching when he was just 27 following a serious knee injury, had spells with Northland and Auckland and then showed his adaptability as well as his adventurous spirit by taking charge of the Fijian national side.
Then, he returned to New Zealand with North Harbour and Auckland, before another adjustment. No sooner had he arrived in Llanelli to become Simon Easterby’s assistant than he was asked to step up and take charge after Easterby’s sudden and unexpected departure to Ireland.
But it might have been in the South Seas, he learned to go with the local flow. The outsider soon grasped the inside track might involve tracking down wayward stars like Rupeni Caucaunibuca to jungle hide-outs before persuading them to play. Or dealing with political interference from the Fijian government. Or, even accepting that Fijian players feel more comfortable sleeping on the floor than in the beds provided by an Auckland five-star hotel the night before they play the All Blacks.
“I think local knowledge of Wales and Welsh rugby will help. It won’t hinder things. It’s not just the knowledge of the Scarlets players, it’s all the others in Welsh rugby.
“We (Scarlets) prepare to face the Blues and Dragons each year so that information will be vital. It’s a good way to get into things and I think this 12 months of build-up will be fantastic from a personal perspective. There are a lot of things we can do between now and then to speed things along.
“It’s advantage to know regional rugby the way I do, what goes on in the regional game and working with the WRU over a number of years. I felt more comfortable putting my name forward and I feel as if I am a Welsh coach.”
Pivac’s spell in charge of Fiji ended just before the 2007 World Cup in France – where they went on to memorably beat Wales – and he admits missing the tournament led to an itch that has yet to be scratched.
By the time he gets to the 2023 tournament, 16 years will have passed, so the itch may be a rash.
“I wasn’t fortunate to have played international rugby but I would loved to have. I’ve had a taste of international rugby and loved that, albeit it Fiji were more of a Tier Two nation back then.
“It is a big job and with that comes huge responsibility. You’ve got to be confident you can do the job without being over-confident. I look forward to everything that gets thrown in front of me, the media is part of that and I enjoy it.
“From that day when I left that Fiji rugby. I wanted to have another opportunity to do it and very grateful for this opportunity.
“You get a taste of something you enjoy and you want a bit more. I’m a lot more mature as a coach now and it’s something I’m going to enjoy.
“Warren has had success – Grand Slams – and it’s something I want to achieve. There’s no reason why you can’t have success. People at the Scarlets probably felt we were a wee way off a few years ago but a bit of hard work and you can achieve great things.
“I’m sure the talent that is in Wales and the success we’ve seen on the last tour, the consistent form, the win/loss record shows that it gives us every opportunity to do well. For me personally I want to win, that’s what we’re in the game for.”