The Six Nations launch is an occasion when hope tends to outscrummage expectation but Alun Wyn Jones was one at this year’s event who did not allow himself to be transported by fancy. The 12-year reign of Warren Gatland, when a success-starved nation was transported back to the 1970s, had ended 10 weeks before and his successor, Wayne Pivac, was coming to terms with replacing a legend.
“There has been a lot of change and, to a point, we have to cut ties with the past,” said the Wales captain back then. “If you continue to look over your shoulder, you will slow yourself down. If you are going to evolve, you have to adapt. It is going to be a bumpy road and we cannot shy away from that.”
Three rounds in, Wales have been bumped off as champions despite a five-try victory over Italy in the opening round. This was followed by a mistake-soaked display in Dublin as Storm Ciara started to blow in, although they showed the characteristics honed by Gatland of hanging on in a game when they were a distant second, and then a first home defeat by France in 10 years, after which Pivac resisted the very great temptation to blame three instances of the officials failing to apply the rules as a factor in the result.
“The performances have been pleasing in patches but there is no consolation in a certain amount,” says Jones now. “It is only pleasing when you win. We made a decent start but our errors against Ireland compounded themselves and we created opportunities against France but did not take enough of them. Test rugby is about winning and we have not done that.”
Wales never lost three successive championship matches under Gatland, who marked his first campaign in charge in 2008 with a grand slam, but that fate is on the cards on Saturday when they travel to Twickenham, the ground where they have enjoyed the least success in the Six Nations, their two victories coming in that slam season and in 2012.
“I have played there a few times and we know what is coming,” says Jones. “It is always a big week. England are building after a disappointing start and they are putting the pieces together to be the complete team they showed they were in the World Cup. They are pretty rudimentary, in the way they impose themselves rather than the way they play.
“It is uncharted territory for us after two defeats but I do not think you can compare this season with the 12 Warren had. The level is here and now and I do not think it is about looking at the two coaches. Warren established himself over a long period of time and everyone became used to what he was about and what he did. It is unfair to compare an experienced writer with one who is new to the job,” he says, turning it back on his questioners.
Pivac, who spent five years with the Scarlets, was appointed with a brief to evolve Wales’s attacking game. There has been a distinct change in emphasis with kicking more strategic than a means of setting up the defence and inviting a catcher to break it down and players such as Nick Tompkins have been used to attack shoulders rather than take contact, but understanding takes time, with pressure in the Six Nations unrelenting and the new coach started at a time when a number of his first-choice backs and a couple of forwards were unavailable.
“We can be reactionary and throw the baby out with the bathwater or we can step back and reflect that there is change,” says Jones. “I said from the outset that the fact we were changing was no excuse, but we are adapting. People asked for that in the past and it is about getting more out of our performances and turning them into results rather than stepping back and pointing fingers. That way you can come out on the other side.”
Pivac and his management team are contracted until the next World Cup but they all have break clauses in 2021, one reason why Shaun Edwards declined to extend his 12 years with the Welsh Rugby Union and instead move to France where his deal runs to the end of 2023. The WRU could not afford to lumber itself financially but it accepted there would be a period of transition.
While Gatland won the Six Nations at the first attempt, his next three years in the tournament were unexceptional, with eight victories and seven defeats. It changed in 2011 when he blooded a number of young players and made Sam Warburton captain. Wales made the World Cup semi-finals that year and won the championship in 2012 and 2013.
Time, Jones argues, is what Pivac needs. “We are trying to play with our heads up and develop the style Wayne wants, which is anything but robotic,” he says. “Change is the most difficult thing whatever line of work you are in. We have to stay strong and not be shackled by fear.”