A year ago Wales were on course for a third grand slam in 11 years. This weekend, with their title defence all but over after three rounds, they are aiming to avoid a third consecutive defeat in a Six Nations campaign for the first time since 2007, the dark period before Warren Gatland arrived to shine a light.
In 12 years at the helm Gatland turned Wales from a flaky, inconsistent side that was burdened by a soft centre into one of the fittest and most obdurate in the world. They would have got nowhere in a beauty contest, but developed a capacity to grind out results.
Wayne Pivac, who took over from Gatland, is also a New Zealander but there the similarities end. He has emboldened his players with the aim of replicating his Scarlets team who swashbuckled their way to the Pro 12 title and reached the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup, but a more open approach has cost them at times with soft tries conceded and key forward battles lost against Ireland and France.
Pivac has yet to be blessed by fortune: players unavailable through injury include the Lions centre Jonathan Davies and the Exeter prop Tomos Francis, while two stalwarts in last year’s championship and World Cup campaigns, Liam Williams and Josh Navidi, were injured for the first three rounds. And his first campaign in charge coincided with France rousing themselves from a 10-year slumber.
“We know two losses is not good enough,” said the Saracens centre Nick Tompkins, who is returning to Twickenham nine months after the Premiership final victory against Exeter when his teammates then, Owen Farrell, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and George Kruis, will be among the opposition ranks. “The performances have been there, especially against France, but with decisions come mistakes: that is the nature of the beast.”
Tompkins won his first cap from the bench against Italy before starting against Ireland and France. He personifies the Pivac way, quick feet and the eye for a gap showing how Wales have edged away from being a side that revelled in impact, but it was his long pass that was picked off by Romain Ntamack in Cardiff in the last round and turned into seven points after Wales had gained a measure of control.
“I was gutted because the momentum was with us and then it shifted a bit. I said to myself that I could not let it define me. If you go into your shell, what is the point in being out there. I told myself it was a mistake, that nine times out of 10 I would not have given the ball away. I wish it had not happened but my attitude is still ‘bring it on’.”
Pivac has told his players not to fret about mistakes or tighten up – Tompkins’ pass would have given Wales a try-scoring opportunity had it gone to hand – but to learn from them. He has promised a tactical tweak against England, one that will involve meeting the physical threat of the home side head-on, but no dilution of their attacking spirit. He knows comparisons will be made with Gatland, but also that meaningful change does not happen overnight. What should not have been lost in a first home defeat to France in 10 years was the flair and ambition Wales showed, and they would probably have won had two second-half refereeing decisions gone their way.
“We know we have to build on the last two matches, but we can also take confidence from them,” said Tompkins, whose club future is still to be decided after Saracens’ relegation to the Championship; he talked about completing his contract with the European champions, but would need to play on loan in Wales next season to continue his international career. “I can’t wait to see my club colleagues: I have been texting Jamie George this week, but we have not talked about rugby.
“It will feel surreal playing against England at Twickenham, but not strange because I never played for England there. One of the hardest things I went through was watching my club-mates get international opportunities and take them. I questioned why it was not happening to me and two years ago it clicked there were things I needed to do. Instead of blaming other people, I took control. I wasn’t ready then, but I am now.”
If Tompkins represents the Pivac way, it is at forward where it will start at Twickenham. Navidi’s return will give Wales a stronger presence at the breakdown on an afternoon when the future can wait. If Pivac’s reign is to start in earnest, he will need to find a touch of Gatland.