New year, new start – but I fear it will be a bit of the same again for Wayne Pivac and Wales during 2021.
I’ve often found it difficult to make predictions, particularly when it comes to Welsh rugby. As we’ve seen time and again, anything can happen.
But with 2020 behind us, and new hope going into the next 12 months, I’ve gazed into my crystal ball and tried to come up with what I think will happen in what will be a really busy rugby year.
Wales had a really disappointing first campaign under Pivac, just a solitary opening day win over Italy to their name as they finished second from bottom.
Unfortunately, and I really hope I’m wrong, I just can’t see the team faring much better this year going on the evidence of the rugby we have witnessed to date under Pivac.
We finished in the same position in the Autumn Nations Cup, below England and Ireland and only above minnows Georgia.
Unfortunately that seems par for the course at the moment and I’m not seeing the game plan to make it change.
For it to do so, Pivac probably needs to particularly target two other teams, Ireland and Scotland, besides the obvious scalp of Italy.
We open up with Ireland at home, but without the fervent backing of 70,000 Welsh fans inside the Principality Stadium.
I wrote in a column before the autumn about how Wales would be more disadvantaged than the other countries because of a lack of crowds at matches.
Unfortunately that proved to be the case. It’s a bit of a cliche, but our supporters really are worth six points a game to the team because of the backing they give, the way the players feed off that passion and how sometimes the noise can even influence referees.
Wales will be missing that advantage again against an Irish side who beat us twice during 2020 and will come here guns blazing, really fancying their chances.
They certainly won’t be fazed by playing in front of an empty stadium, nor will England when they come here.
After Ireland it’s Scotland at Murrayfield for Wales, a Scottish side who are on the up, beat us in October and will be determined to build upon that.
With England third, that represents a tough start for Pivac – and to compound matters we may well have to go into the games without Alun Wyn Jones.
We know what a leader, inspiration and talisman he is to this side, motivating the other players, but who’s going to do that in his absence?
Justin Tipuric, I guess, but whilst a world-class player in his own right, he’s not the sort of motivator Alun Wyn is.
We don’t know how many games Alun Wyn might miss, if any I suppose?
The knee injury he sustained in the autumn finale against Italy seemed a bit of a mystery, nobody really noticed it at the time.
Pivac needs him back on the field as soon as possible, but even with Alun Wyn returning we need to see far more from Wales up front to give me greater confidence and belief they can win key games.
A lack of possession, and doing the set-piece basics right, continues to hamper any broader game plan Pivac wishes to implement.
We hear a lot about Pivac wanting to play a certain way, but even a year on I’m not sure what that is because we don’t get enough ball anyway. As a consequence, who knows what we’re capable of doing behind under Stephen Jones’ tutelage?
I really want to see that change this year and for Wales to make significant strides forward, but realistically I fear we’ll only beat Italy and once more finish fifth.
Or second from bottom. Call it as you wish.
I can see Ireland third, Scotland fourth, but the top two positions altering with France pipping England to the title.
So many of England’s key players from Saracens will be undercooked because of a lack of club rugby, relying heavily on squad sessions for their fitness levels. But while those are doubtless intense within the England camp, they are still not enough for the demands of international rugby.
To be fair, Eddie Jones has built up strength in depth. He doesn’t just want the best XV, but the best bench too.
But I think the lack of rugby for the Sarries players, France’s rise and the Shaun Edwards factor will see Les Bleus clinch the crown against Wales in the final match in Paris in March.
South Africa v Lions
Once the tournament is over, attention will straight away turn to what’s next on the horizon in the summer – and what a mouthwatering duel there is in prospect.
Personally, I’m far from convinced the tour should be going ahead given the pandemic.
Lions tours are not just about the 36 players chosen, they are just as much about the mingling of 20,000 travelling fans and what they bring to the local economy.
It’s far, far more than what we see on the field of play.
But, on the basis the games will be played, what is likely to happen?
The make-up of Warren Gatland’s party will be entirely different to say 18 months ago, when Wales had won the Grand Slam and would have had a sizeable proportion of tourists.
Alun Wyn Jones would have been a shoo-in as captain. And rightly so.
Yet a mix of injury and Wales’ bad form means he can’t even be guaranteed to tour, let alone be named as skipper.
That choice will boil down to Owen Farrell versus Maro Itoje – and it could go either way.
There is growing support for Itoje, even though he doesn’t captain his country. But as I recall nor did Martin Johnson when he was first named Lions skipper.
Itoje is the type of individual who stands up to be counted, leads by example from the front, inspires with his actions and I think he’d do a good job as captain.
There are going to be enough leaders in that team anyway to help him.
Farrell’s credentials are there for everyone to see. He skippers England, is another who’s always there when the going gets tough and like Itoje is guaranteed his Test spot. Whether that’s at 10 or 12, he’ll be in.
If you were to ask me who will be the Lions’ standout player then I will say Farrell.
He plays in a key position anyway, but he’s also an outstanding player, a good controller of matches. And while he sometimes forgets how to tackle properly, he doesn’t take a backward step and is always fully committed in the tackle.
The Lions need that kind of competitiveness against the abrasive Springboks.
Where does this leave Alun Wyn? Gatland knows him well, of course, and I’ve seen Ian McGeechan suggest him as captain of the midweek team.
He’d be good on tour, his leadership ability isn’t in question.
But with Itoje and James Ryan as the likely locks, and with Joe Launchbury and Courtney Lawes probably backing them up, realistically it’s hard to see him making the Test XV.
An upturn in Wales’ fortunes in the Six Nations would certainly help Alun Wyn’s cause, as it will a number of Pivac’s players.
Whereas 18 months ago a lot of them would have made the Lions, I noticed the Daily Telegraph choosing their 30 best players in British rugby the other day – and only three Welshmen got in.
I don’t agree with that, by the way, we have players who are much better than that.
At least Gatland knows their qualities, having worked so closely with them down the years. But he’ll also know Wales need to have a much better Six Nations because players from England, Ireland and Scotland will be putting their own hands up for selection.
What do I think will happen with the Lions? Everything always seems to hinge on the first Test. And while it will be really close, Gatland is savvy enough to come up with the right strategy to beat the world champions, picking the right power players to win the more conservative game he tends to prefer.
I tip the Lions to win 2-1. Win the first two Tests, perhaps lose the last one.
Wales summer tour
This still seems a little up in the air, but it appears Wales could be heading to Argentina during the summer while the Lions are in South Africa.
This won’t offer too much respite for Pivac and his team either, particularly as their better players, so to speak, will be away on Lions duty.
The Pumas recently beat New Zealand, a real prized scalp, whilst they drew twice with Australia.
They’ll have their strongest XV against a weaker Wales side and will clearly be looking to build upon those excellent Rugby Championship results.
I really hope Wales prove me wrong again, but unfortunately I can see us losing 2-0 out in South America – perhaps leading to further questions asked of Pivac.
Look, following Gatland was always going to be a huge ask.
Pivac really does need to start implementing the game plan he wants and properly put his own stamp upon this team, but everything starts first and foremost with securing your own possession.
Which is an area Wales were found wanting in during 2020.
Sort out the set-piece, the scrum and lineout, and use that as the foundation from which to build. Rugby has changed an awful lot down the decades, but that fundamental to the game hasn’t altered one iota.
That’s what Wales’ priority needs to be during 2021.
Then Pivac can build from that and, hopefully, we’ll see a vast improvement.
Unfortunately, the evidence we’ve seen makes me fear we’re still a way off that.
But we can always hope. Happy New Year, everyone.