Preview: Wales v Barbarians
CELEBRATION DAY: Wayne Pivac goes under the white-hot scrutiny of coaching Wales when his new team takes on Warren Gatland’s Barbarians on Saturday in Cardiff.
He is the fourth Kiwi coach to take the Red Dragons in 21 years.
How will he go in comparison to Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Gatland?
The latter offered guarded praise of his successor in the latest issue of Rugby News magazine.
“He’s been saying all the right things about not making too many changes and not trying to reinvent the wheel. He was successful at Scarlets and now he has a chance to coach a tier-one nation. It will be a challenge for him, but he wants to add his own stamp and personality.”
Pivac is a vastly experienced coach and was 2003 New Zealand Rugby coach of the year after taking Auckland to a third NPC title in five years. He is media-friendly and a lot of players have a lot of time for him and his methods.
The reality is that he should have earned a Super Rugby gig with the Blues several years ago, as his knowledge of players in that franchise’s catchment area was second to none, having coached all three provincial unions, Northland, Auckland and North Harbour.
But, as Pivac himself has told this scribe, the timing around Super Rugby never worked out. In 2014, he took up the job at Scarlets, doing good things with that proud region, including annexing a PRO14 crown in 2017. He surrounded himself with good local men, Stephen Jones among them.
The timing of his departure to Scarlets wasn’t flash, still contracted to Auckland at the time, but he could not sit around while the Blues job was still John Kirwan’s. Funnily enough, when Kirwan’s tenure ended in ignominy in 2015, a Pivac-Paul Feeney ticket, a partnership forged way back in their playing days at Takapuna, could have borne fruit from 2016. Instead, Tana Umaga got the nod after sterling work at Counties Manukau. Unfortunately, it did not end well and the Blues travails continue to this day.
Pivac was, like Hansen, a policeman, so he has learned to be a man manager and judge character. Hadleigh Parkes and others such as Johnny McNicholl speak highly of him. Parkes was a journeyman in New Zealand but he thrived at Scarlets under Pivac’s tutelage and is now an established international.
McNicholl will become another Kiwi Red Dragon this weekend. Fine player that he is, he probably would not have been an All Black. Likewise Willis Halaholo, who was promoted from the Cardiff Blues, though now hit with an untimely injury.
Pivac has coached for nearly 30 years over all levels of the game, including guiding Fiji in 2004-07. He knows the game, he knows the players, and now he faces the ultimate litmus test with a tier-one nation that is arguably more obsessive about the game than his native New Zealand.
He has massive shoes to fill after 12 years of Gatland with Wales. Pivac is seven days older than Gatland. Both are members of the NZ Barbarians club. Both will adhere to the BaaBaas’ open rugby philosophy this weekend. But only one of the two coaches badly needs the win.
Wales must lay the foundation for the Six Nations this weekend, and Pivac must lay the marker for what he hopes will be a fruitful, not turbulent, time in the valleys.
As the Barbarians squad joined up in Cardiff to prepare for the final match of their November tour, three legends of the game will be preparing to say different farewells in Wales this week.
Ireland’s Rory Best and South Africa’s Schalk Brits will mark the end of their international careers.
The match also marks the final appearance of Wales’ hugely successful former coach Warren Gatland’s at the Wales home ground before he heads back to his native New Zealand.
Best, who turned out for the Barbarians this month against Fiji at Twickenham and against Brazil in Sao Paulo, recently called time on a stellar international career that included three Six Nations Championships, two British and Irish Lions tours and an historic and memorable 40-29 maiden win against the All Blacks at Soldier’s Field, Chicago, in November 2016.
The 124-capped world-class hooker played his final match for Ireland as captain at the quarterfinals of World Cup 2019, when Ireland went out to New Zealand.
Best will appear alongside Barbarians player-and-fan favourite Brits, who will pull on the famous black-and-white jersey one more time, after eight appearances for the invitational side and will be looking for a final BaaBaas win to round off his career.
Brits, one of the most popular players ever to wear a Barbarians shirt, lit up the World Cup 2019 after being persuaded out of retirement by Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus.
The 38-year-old played at No.8 for the first time in a decade when he started against Namibia and won hearts the world over with his bows to the ball kids throughout the Tournament.
Brits and Best join a star-studded Barbarians squad including World Cup 2019 champion Makazole Mapimpi and French centre Mathieu Bastareaud.
Gatland has revealed how his Cardiff return as the Barbarians’ coach was originally planned as his Wales swansong.
Gatland makes an emotional return to the Principality Stadium on Saturday following his successful 12-year reign with Wales.
The 56-year-old finished after the World Cup earlier this month and was succeeded by his fellow New Zealander Wayne Pivac, who will take charge of Wales for the first time against Gatland’s Barbarians.
“There have been a lot of jokes flying around about the challenges that he [Pivac] faces,” Gatland said.
“He needs a little bit of time to put his own personality onto it and his own imprint on the game, working with the other coaches, gelling together, and that takes some time.
“That was why I felt it was really important to have this game. Initially, when I was told about this game going ahead, the idea was that it was going to be my last game in charge of Wales.
“I just felt that it was not right for that to happen. I was finished after the World Cup and it was a great chance for the new coaching team to come in and to get some time with the players.
“This will give them a good chance to assess those players and help them build for the Six Nations, and I just felt that was really important.
“Rather than the Barbarians asking me, I had to ask the Barbarians if I could coach them against Wales! It was important for Wales and for the new management team too.”
Gatland joked that he wanted the Principality Stadium roof left open, a reference to visiting sides having the final word on that particular issue during his time as Wales coach.
But he said he had no idea where the away dressing room is, saying someone would have to show the way to prevent him from getting lost.
Gatland enjoyed huge success as Wales coach following the humiliation of the 2007 World Cup when Wales failed to get out of the group stage.
During his dozen years in charge, Wales won four Six Nations titles, three Grand Slams and reached two World Cup semifinals.
“It was funny on Tuesday because I went back to my apartment, which overlooks the training ground, and actually drove past while they were training,” Gatland said.
“I thought ‘This is a bit weird’ so I made sure I didn’t look out of the car window. It felt a bit awkward really.
“But it’s a great opportunity for me to say thank you to the fans and the Welsh public for 12 brilliant years. It’s been amazing.
“I don’t think I can lose really, either way. But we’re here to play some rugby and we’re here to give a good performance.
“The competitive side comes out of me so, over the next 48 hours, it’s about getting ourselves right.
“When those competitive juices start to flow, it’s about delivering a performance and hopefully the Barbarians winning.”
Wales: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 Johnny McNicholl, 13 Owen Watkin, 12 Hadleigh Parkes, 11 Josh Adams, 10 Jarrod Evans, 9 Tomos Williams, 8 Aaron Wainwright, 7 Justin Tipuric (captain), 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Adam Beard, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Dillon Lewis, 2 Ken Owens, 1 Wyn Jones.
Replacements: 16 Elliot Dee, 17 Rob Evans, 18 Leon Brown, 19 Seb Davies, 20 Ollie Griffiths, 21 Gareth Davies, 22 Sam Davies, 23 Owen Lane.
Barbarians: 15 Shaun Stevenson, 14 Dillyn Leyds, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Andre Esterhuizen, 11 Cornal Hendricks, 10 Curwin Bosch, 9 Bryn Hall, 8 Josh Strauss, 7 Marco van Staden, 6 Pete Samu, 5 Tyler Ardon, 4 Luke Jones, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (captain), 1 Campese Ma’afu.
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Craig Millar, 18 Hencus van Wyk, 19 George Biagi, 20 Angus Cottrell, 21 Jano Vermaak, 22 Billy Meakes, 23 Matt Duffie.
Date: Saturday, November 30
Venue: Principality Stadium, Cardiff
Kick-off: 14.45 (14.45 GMT)
Referee: Nigel Owens (Wales)
Assistant referees: Dan Jones (Wales), Gwyn Morris (Wales)
TMO: Ian Davies (Wales)
Sources: RugbyPass & @Barbarian_FC