The last time Wales hired a former policeman as head coach he used the skills he had learned on the beat in New Zealand to trap a player who claimed to have spent the night in the team hotel in the Vale of Glamorgan. Steve Hansen rose before breakfast, walked to the suspected party’s car and felt the bonnet, which was warm.
Wayne Pivac, who takes charge of his first competitive match next Saturday, 18 months after being named as Warren Gatland’s successor, will also be drawing on his former job as a copper, but in a different way as he looks to build on his predecessor’s successful 12 years.
“As a policeman, you get to deal with a cross-section of the community,” says Pivac, a former Fiji coach who guided the Scarlets to the then Pro12 title in 2017. “The ability to elicit information from people who do not necessarily want to talk to you is a skill in itself, reading body language and understanding what everyone is thinking right now.
“Being able to get messages across and understanding that people will receive information in different ways is a big help. Once you have been to someone’s home to tell them a loved one has passed away unexpectedly, you can sit down with a rugby player and tell him he has not been picked this week. I do not find that as difficult as maybe some coaches.”
One advantage Pivac will have over Gatland, another New Zealander, is that he is used to the politics of Welsh rugby, having spent five years with the Scarlets. The game may not be as tribal as it once was, with 19 first-class clubs having been distilled into four regions, but it remains a country with a low tolerance threshold for failure.
Even Gatland came under fire after his few poor Six Nations campaigns while Graham Henry used to lament a lack of perspective, comparing opinion in the country to a shower that was either too hot or too cold.
“I was questioned in my final interview over how I would handle the goldfish bowl and the expectation of the Welsh public,” says Pivac. “There is significant pressure and responsibility that goes with the role but there are bigger things than a rugby match and I have experienced some of them. It puts everything into perspective.”
Pivac had a warm-up for the Six Nations last month when Wales faced the Barbarians. The side was without a number of the players who had helped Wales reach the semi-finals of the World Cup, most notably the captain Alun Wyn Jones, but those who were not based in England watched the match and met their new boss.
“We had a number of one-on-one conversations with players,” says Pivac. “It was a great week to get to know players I had not worked with before. It does not matter which clubs they come from: they play the game for the same reasons. It is a gladiatorial sport and what it important is that we enjoy each other’s company and have a good old-fashioned beer afterwards.”
Pivac, now 57, is a product of the amateur era, playing for North Harbour before going into coaching. He brought “old-fashioned” values to the Scarlets and transformed a side that had been in turmoil on and off the field into champions and European Cup semi-finalists. He encouraged players to express themselves and a significant factor behind his appointment was the flowing style of rugby he advocated.
“The guys have been made aware of the style of game we want to play, the positional specifics and the roles they will have, whatever number is on their back,” he says. “Everybody has been given clear instructions about what is expected, and what I am seeing is a great reaction. We have a good vibe in the group.”
Pivac preaches evolution rather than revolution, gradually adding to his inheritance rather than ripping everything up and starting over. Wales developed under Gatland from a side that was inconsistent and prone to collapse to one of the most durable in the world, as they showed in winning the grand slam last year by overcoming various forms of adversity.
They were not the easiest on the eye, using defence as the best means of attack, and Pivac will in the Six Nations be handicapped by the loss of the Lions centre Jonathan Davies and two running outside-halves, Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell. The uncapped Nick Tompkins is a contender for 13, a position that George North might alternatively fill, as a way of leaving room for the 18-year-old Gloucester sensation Louis Rees-Zammit on the wing.
Dan Biggar, who personified the Gatland era with his aggression and competitive zeal, will start at 10 with a licence to thrill. “Marrying up with Chris Boyd at Northampton, given the way they play, has added another dimension to Dan’s game which is fantastic for us, “ says Pivac. “He has quality, brings experience and you can see what he did in the World Cup.”