Wayne Pivac takes charge of Wales for the first time today. He may be cut from the same New Zealand cloth as Warren Gatland, but he tells Graham Thomas there will be a definite change in styling.
A new era in Welsh rugby begins on November 30 and if anyone feels inclined to call it “Wayneball” then the man himself is fine with that.
Wayne Pivac has replaced Warren Gatland as Wales head coach and no-one needs to remind the incomer he has big shoes to fill – starting with his first game at home to the Barbarians.
Gatland was the country’s most successful national rugby coach – winning four Six Nations titles, including three Grand Slams, and taking the team to two World Cup semi-finals. In doing so, he became a beacon of excellence for those working in other sports.
In 12 years in charge his chosen playing style often divided opinion, and his critics labelled it “Warrenball”. But while Pivac – as the new conductor – may strike different notes, he will use the same instruments.
A fellow New Zealander, he adopts a similar athlete-centred approach which relies on sound man-management skills, honesty, pragmatism, and an ability to see how various parts of the sport can best fit together.
Five years in Wales with the Scarlets have equipped him to know the challenges of competing factions in Welsh rugby, but he insists: “I don’t see it as rugby politics, I see it more as man-management.
“It’s probably 75 per cent of what I do as a head coach. Obviously, we settle on a style of play, bring the experts in, and decide on how we’re going to run the squad on a day-to-day basis.
“But outside of the camps – which is a big chunk of time – there is a lot of work done on managing the machine, if you like.
“Within that there is contracting and building relationships with the clubs and the age grade system and making sure we’re on the same song-sheet. There is also the exiles programme which I think is under-utilised at the moment.”
For many, Gatland’s success with Wales came in spite of the structures underpinning the national team, rather than because of them.
Others point to the fact that the four Welsh regions supply the vast majority of players to the national side and then suffer from their loss.
Unlike the three previous New Zealanders who have done the job – Gatland, Steve Hansen and Graham Henry – Pivac has the advantage of having sat on the other side of the fence, through his time at the Scarlets.
He adds: “In Welsh rugby, we have a lot of resources. It’s about pulling them all together and making sure we pull in the same direction. There will be a lot of communication with the club coaches.
“At the end of the day, they have our players for a big chunk of the season. We have to make sure that certain skill sets and aspects of the game are worked on at club level, so that when we get to the international programme, players can fit into what we want to do.
“The skills that we need to be working on, we are hopeful that clubs will be working on those same areas. The response so far has been very positive. I have been into all four clubs on more than one occasion.
“Head coaches are talking and the relationship has started off very well. And obviously, I know these coaches from my five years with the Scarlets.”
Pivac’s knowledge of domestic Welsh rugby should give him a head start on his predecessors, but the 57-year-old also has experience of international coaching.
He was in charge of Fiji between 2004 and 2007 before stints back in New Zealand with North Harbour and Auckland eventually led him to Llanelli.
Like Gatland, he is a former player who prefers a real-world, straightforward view to coaching – rather than one dressed up in the latest jargon.
📹 Pivac on @Barbarian_FC clash
“These are great games, everyone is looking forward to them and we’ve got a good crowd coming along”
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) November 21, 2019
“For me, personally, and I think I speak for most coaches in this, you are in the game because you believe in your own ability and what you can bring to the table and you love a challenge.
“Ultimately, we are all old players, aren’t we? Every time you take the field you want to get one over your opponent.
“In this case, we want to get performances on the board that, firstly, we are proud of and, secondly, which gives us the right result at the end of the day.
“So, we will be doing everything we can to emulate what Warren has done in terms of results and also evolve our game at the same time.”
For those who care as much for style as substance, that could mean a shift to a more flexible approach as Warrenball makes way for Wayneball.
He adds: “For me, it’s about being able to play more than one style. And more than one style within an 80-minute game as well.
“For us, it’s working on a number of skills – not just the Flash Harry, move the ball from side to side stuff – which at times the Scarlets were renowned for.
“Hopefully, we will have the ability over time to play a tight game, an arm wrestle – which the team are very good at playing at the moment – and at other times chance our arm a little bit and really test out opposition defences.”