Wayne Pivac: Former Wales head coach ‘disappointed’ not to realise World Cup dream
Former head coach Wayne Pivac says he was left frustrated after his dismissal denied him the chance to lead Wales through to this year’s World Cup.
Pivac was sacked in December 2022 and replaced by his predecessor Warren Gatland.
Pivac’s exit came nine months before the New Zealander was due to lead Wales into the 2023 World Cup in France.
“It was disappointing because we have been three years in the job and were so close to a World Cup,” said Pivac.
The decision to remove Pivac followed a Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) review into a dismal autumn campaign.
Pivac’s three-year tenure saw Wales slip to ninth in the world rankings, having won 13 games, lost 20 and drawn one.
During the 60-year-old’s final year in charge, Wales won only three of 12 games, with nine defeats including home losses to Georgia and Italy.
Pivac had hoped to be given more time, so his coaching team could look to replicate their 2021 Six Nations success and Wales’ first men’s national team Test victory in South Africa in July 2022.
“It’s everybody’s dream as a player to play at a World Cup and as a coach it’s about challenging yourself on the biggest stage also,” he added.
“With eight weeks’ preparation leading into the tournament, that’s where you are going to add value.
“We knew what we wanted to do at the World Cup and had that time to change a few things.
“The blueprint was 2021 and that was what we wanted to achieve at the World Cup. It was not to be.”
It’s not soccer
Pivac is not alone in losing his job with the World Cup around the corner. England’s Eddie Jones also left his post last month, while Dave Rennie has just been sacked by Australia, with Jones himself returning to the Wallabies role.
“It’s getting more like football,” said Pivac.
“It is a sign of the times and goes with the territory. It’s high stakes we play for and there are expectations of results.
“As coaches we bring the axe down on some careers, not because we don’t like the individual but because you have to make tough calls. It’s no different with coaches.
“There’s a lot at stake. People have to make decisions on what’s best for the union. It’s never personal. The discussions I had with people there were amicable. I accept the decision made, you move on and wish the boys well.”
Pivac says Wales’ first defeat to Georgia was the moment he knew the writing was on the wall.
“The Italy game kicked it off,” he said.
“We needed to go well in South Africa but then needed to back it up in the autumn. Georgia was the final nail as far as I was concerned.”
Pivac had one more match in charge, where Wales led Australia 34-13 with 20 minutes remaining before shipping 26 points to suffer another agonising defeat.
Would he still be in charge had Wales achieved victory over the Wallabies?
“I can’t answer that question, I just felt after the Georgia game, if I was in other people’s shoes, I would be questioning if this is the right thing to go forward with,” added Pivac.
“The Georgia game was unacceptable in terms of a result and we live and die by our results.”
Pivac was dismissed and replaced by the returning Gatland, who is Wales’ most successful and longest-serving coach, having won three Grand Slams during his previous 12-year reign and guided them to 2011 and 2019 World Cup semi-finals.
“It (Gatland’s appointment) was not a surprise for me personally,” said Pivac.
“You have to look at what is available if you are going to make a change and Warren understands the game.
“If you are going to make a change this close to the World Cup, looking from the outside, it is probably the move I would have made if I was making a change.”
Gatland had been standing on the Principality Stadium pitch as a pundit during Wales’ dismal autumn campaign.
“I didn’t think much about it,” added Pivac.
“You have to stay focused on your role and make sure those things don’t become a distraction for yourself or anyone else.
“The interesting thing in the autumn was the winning coach went and spoke to the media after the game.
“Unfortunately, I only got to do that and speak to Warren on camera once, after the Argentina game, and he was fine with his questioning.”
The Gatland ghost was always going to be something his replacement would have to deal, with Pivac taking over from his fellow countryman after the 2019 World Cup.
“It was hard coming in after Warren but it was a challenge I took on head first,” added Pivac.
“It’s always hard to come in behind a successful team. I had a lead-in time of about 12 months and we had good conversations and Warren gave me insight into how he operated.
“He did a really good job. For me, it wasn’t trying to be Warren. It was trying to say how we could add value to what he had done.
“If you look at his tenure, they had a very disciplined and fit team with a very good defence and played a game which suited them at the time.
“Was that a game that was going to win a World Cup? I didn’t think so. In my interview process, we talked about what we needed to do to win a World Cup.
“That was to add another dimension to the Welsh game. That was around the attacking side.
“I hark back to 2021 and the first 60 minutes of the Australian game, where you saw what we were capable of.”
Pivac’s attack and defence coaches, Stephen Jones and Gethin Jenkins, have also been dismissed by Wales and replaced by Alex King and Mike Forshaw.
“I feel more for them than worrying too much about myself,” added Pivac.
“I have been lucky to be coaching for 26 years. To get this far into a career and have it happen, it’s not the end of the world for me personally.
“For those guys it’s tough. They have young families, but we all know going into these roles that it can happen. Ultimately we have paid the price.”
Pivac accepts he would change a couple of things given his time again – but also highlighted some positive times.
“You always look back with hindsight,” added Pivac.
“Would I have selected the team for Italy again? We should have been able to beat them on that day and get the bonus-point win and we would have finished third in the Six Nations.
“I wouldn’t do too much differently. You have got to be able to mix and match and have confidence in players when you get to the big tournaments.
“If you look at the 2021 squad it was the strongest we have been able to put out since I came into the role.
“If you look back on that competition, not only did we win it with some quality rugby, we scored the most tries and had a record score against England.
“We were heading in the right direction with the attack and there were some new players injected into the squad.
“We haven’t had that squad since, with a lot of injuries to a lot of quality players. Because of the small number of players in Wales, we need those players on the field when it comes to major competitions.
“The reality is you get injuries, but we seem to have picked up a few.
“The other thing I am proud of is the young guys that have come through, Dewi Lake, Gareth Thomas. Jac Morgan, Tommy Reffell, Louis Rees-Zammit.
“I am happy to have made those first phone calls, to get the reaction from players who have dreamt of playing for their country. They are special moments I will never forget.”
Pivac says being Wales head coach can be the “best job in the world when things to go plan”.
“The adrenalin rush of winning a Test match, coming down Westgate Street in a bus behind the horses, the crowd, the warm-up, everything – you just soak it all up,” he said.
“When I look back on my career and digest everything, that 2021 championship was very special because of what everyone was going through with Covid.
“We were away from our families. We felt it was a good opportunity to give back to the community and spirits.
“At times, the job is more than just a game of rugby. On that occasion, we won a Triple Crown and a Championship and lifted the spirits of a nation. I’ll never forget that.”
Pivac also acknowledges the pressure and scrutiny which comes with Welsh rugby’s top job, having experienced intense criticism before his departure.
“I have never been on social media, probably one of the best things I have ever done,” he added.
“I know Graham Henry and Steve Hansen well and had conversations with those guys before taking the role so I knew what I was getting myself into.
“Your life changes more the further you go up in the game because you become more recognisable and public property.
“For my wife Mikaela it took getting used to. We’d be at a restaurant and people would come up for a photo.
“The girls are at local schools and you get the odd comment, but they are good and haven’t had too much of a hard time.”
The experience has not blunted Pivac’s coaching aspirations, who enjoyed a Christmas visit to New Zealand to see his son get married.
“I have had a break and am keen to look at the next challenge,” he added.
“At this stage of my career I am flexible. It could be here in the UK, Japan or New Zealand, who knows?
“I want to keep going, I have learned more and will be a better coach for the experience I have been through.”
For now, Pivac will be supporting Wales through the Six Nations and World Cup as he settles back into family life.
“I have been in Wales eight-and-a-half years, am very attached to the place and a lot of players and coaches,” added Pivac.
“I want them to do well at the World Cup because we have worked hard to do a lot of the development work.
“I’d like Warren to take advantage of the depth now in place and do well.
“I’ll be wishing the boys all the success in the world. We went through a lot together in three years and there are a lot of good memories.”