Wales: The Year Ahead

A new era beckons for the reigning Grand Slam champions, as Wales prepare for life after Warren Gatland and a tilt at retaining their title.

A new era beckons for the reigning Grand Slam champions, as Wales prepare for life after Warren Gatland and a tilt at retaining their title.

Following Rugby World Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of eventual winners South Africa, Gatland has been succeeded by his long-planned replacement Wayne Pivac – and the former Scarlets man will get his first taste of action when the pair go head to head as Wales host the Barbarians at the end of November.

After the 12-year reign of one of rugby’s all-time greats comes to an end, there are big shoes to fill for the new man, but there is one thing that will keep his mind at rest: he has the sterling playing staff to help him do just that.

Not since 2007 have Wales entered a Guinness Six Nations without Gatland in situ – although Rob Howley and Robin McBryde had taken care of a series of matches in caretaker capacity during the New Zealander’s sabbaticals in 2012-13 and 2016-17 – and for them it is therefore a voyage into the unknown.

Pivac’s record is an impressive one nevertheless; he has international experience with Fiji and has coached all around the world before settling at Scarlets, where five years proves that he – like Gatland – has no problem with longevity.

The other issue the new man will face is a recurring battle with injuries: star centre Jonathan Davies has been ruled out of the Guinness Six Nations, as has Gareth Anscombe, while the likes of George North, Leigh Halfpenny and Josh Navidi all face a battle to be fit for Rugby’s Greatest Championship.

Someone who could well fit the bill in Davies’ absence is Owen Watkin.

Billed as a future superstar, the Ospreys youngster will be familiar to Pivac from his time coaching in the Guinness PRO14, and may be given a chance to pitch his claim with a runout against the Barbarians.

Another high-flying youngster who could well feature is Jarrod Evans. The versatile back can operate at fly-half or at inside centre and has started his domestic season with Cardiff Blues in fine fettle – now could well be the time for Wales’ developing stars to take the next step.

For Wales, it is the small matter of defending their fabulously-won 2019 Grand Slam title.

They entered last year’s Championship on a high, with a nine-match winning run to their name that soon became 14 as they swept all beside them on the way to a glorious title – Gatland’s third and final Slam.

The challenge now must be to pick themselves up after their World Cup exit, and their Barbarians clash is as good a place to start as any.

They welcome the side – which will be coached by Gatland – in Pivac’s first outing as boss, on Saturday 30 November at Principality Stadium, an occasion that is set to be joyous and emotional all in one.

It will then be a clear run into the 2020 Guinness Six Nations, as they get set to kick off the Championship with the visit of Italy.

A testing trip to Ireland follows, before France come to town in Round 3 and they visit England a fortnight later, rounding off their campaign against Scotland at the Principality Stadium.

These are no-doubt exciting times for Wales, and they are set to follow up their Guinness Six Nations title defence with a busy summer and autumn next year, although there are no dates set in the diary as of yet.

They then go again in the 2021 edition of Rugby’s Greatest Championship, where they open up with the visit of Ireland.

They then face Scotland in Edinburgh, England in Cardiff, Italy in Rome and conclude things off in Paris.