You would think, well over two years into the Wales job, that Wayne Pivac would know his best team by this stage.
Yet his constant tinkering with the side, a further seven changes for this weekend’s Six Nations finale with Italy, indicates to me that he doesn’t. In fact, the only consistency with Pivac is his inconsistency in selection.
There is a world of difference between tinkering with the odd player or two from a winning position of strength, and making the kind of changes Pivac does. He was appointed as Warren Gatland’s successor to be in 2019, his first game in charge was in November that year.
READ MORE: Pivac – Why I’ve ripped up team
Yet here we are, March 2022, and yet more changes indicate to me Pivac isn’t truly confident in knowing what his best XV is. If these changes were being made at the beginning of his reign, then fair enough. It’s part of the learning curve, he’s trying out as many players as possible.
But it’s not like that. Seven changes is almost half a team and while people will say any XV Wales put out will be good enough to trounce Italy, we still have to push hard for third place, run in the tries, get a bonus point win and put the pressure on Scotland and England before they even play. As such I’d like to have seen our best XV chosen.
No-one is going to convince me Nick Tompkins and Tomas Francis are not capable of making that best XV. And whilst everyone knows the qualities of Alun Wyn Jones, indeed I’ve talked him up in these columns regularly, is it really fair for Will Rowlands to be left out when, in my view at least, he’s been our best forward during the Six Nations?
What I find difficult to comprehend is that Pivac seems to talk about being happy enough with the depth created in his squad. Yet he throws Taulupe Faletau straight back in after almost a year out and with just two Bath comeback games behind him, he picks Josh Navidi after one Cardiff match – which he wasn’t brilliant in, by the way- while Alun Wyn goes in without any match action behind him whatsoever.
There’s an element of an air of desperation in that for me. Is Pivac really as confident about the back-up players as he says?
It’s always been the case in rugby, amateur or professional, that if you play well you keep your place for the next game. As a player surely you want that. If you’re rested and someone else comes in and has a blinder, then where does that leave you for the spot the game after that?
I’ve not the slightest doubt Rowlands, Tompkins and Francis will have been desperate to pull on the red jersey again at the Principality Stadium this weekend, the chance to go out on a high at the end of a gruelling tournament, have a bit of a rest at Test level and then look to shine again for Wales in South Africa this summer.
Surely they each deserve to be playing. The fact that they aren’t doesn’t sit well with me. I wonder what poor Rowlands must be thinking, even accepting everything Alun Wyn Jones brings to the table.
Rowlands, possibly more than any other player. has come on in leaps and bounds at international level, and particularly so during this tournament. He’s excellent in the lineout, but also in the loose, and really showed up strongly against France a week ago.
He’s arguably the most dynamic ball carrier that we’ve got, although I guess Faletau also has a strong claim to that, and undoubtedly deserves another chance. Would Pivac not have been better served giving Alun Wyn a chance to get some comeback games under his belt with the Ospreys at regional level and stuck by Rowlands and Adam Beard in the second row for this one?
Doesn’t Rowlands deserve that chance after going toe-to-toe with the French? None of this taking anything away from Alun Wyn, I must emphasise.
To be fair, Faletau had a couple of stormers upon his return, Navidi showed up well versus France and Alun Wyn will probably do the same against Italy. But I do worry about the kind of message it sends when someone who has performed as strongly as Rowlands has finds himself out of the team the moment someone else is available again.
I feel almost as strongly about Francis’ omission. He’s been one of the unsung Wales aces during this tournament, has shored up the scrum, and I have to be honest in admitting I don’t feel the same confidence over Dillon Lewis.
Then we have Tompkins. He’s been very busy and has proved to be our best centre at the moment. Yet out he goes, with Willis Halaholo given the nod and Owen Watkin chosen at 13. I’ve no issues with Pivac taking a look at the creativity of Halaholo at 12, but for me Tompkins should be playing outside him. Indeed, those two would have the makings of a really good partnership, I feel.
Look, I expect Wales to win comfortably this weekend and, pending other results, we could still finish third. But the fact is Italy have only lost one more game than us, and our win over Scotland was narrow, so they will feel they can make things difficult for Wales this weekend.
As such, I really think Pivac should have named his strongest team, which he may feel he is actually doing. I worry half a side being changed indicates he still isn’t sure what comprises his best XV. But he’ll need to start sorting it. The World Cup isn’t that far away.
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