Cast your mind back to the second weekend in February and the goodwill towards Wayne Pivac and his new coaching ticket was relatively generous from the Welsh public.
A 42-0 win over Italy had shown signs of an attacking gameplan. And even though the following week resulted in a rather unorganised defeat to Ireland in Dublin, the six phases that led up to Tomos Williams’ try pointed to where Wales wanted to head in their bid for a more free-flowing style.
Because that was the selling point of Pivac’s Wales.
The whole attraction of what Pivac – and Stephen Jones – had done with the Scarlets was not just winning, but doing so with a swashbuckling style.
The hope was that we’d see that attacking masterplan transferred to the Test stage with Wales.
The Six Nations saw fits and starts of that attacking style – Williams’ try against Ireland, flashes of inspiration against France and that Justin Tipuric try against England spring to mind – with the numbers backing it up.
Wales were sitting near the top of the stat columns when it came to tries, metres made, offloads, defenders beaten and most other attacking metrics.
The issue was Wales hadn’t quite figured out how to turn those shoots of progress into winning rugby, with several issues both in attack and other facets of the game undermining any early promise.
However, even on the back of three defeats in February and March, you could see where Wales were heading.
Now, three games into life post-lockdown and it’s somewhat harder to ascertain what the blueprint is.
Toothless defeats to France, Scotland and Ireland have put the pressure on Wales’ coaches.
Two have already left camp – albeit Sam Warburton’s departure was decided months ago according to the former Wales captain – with the focus narrowed in on the defence and set-piece.
However, it’s impossible to deny the attack we were hoping for isn’t there yet.
So what exactly is the gameplan and why isn’t it working?
What’s the blueprint?
In trying to bring about a more attacking style of play, Pivac has looked to change their patterns in possession of the ball.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about Pivac’s Scarlets success and why things aren’t working with Wales is the lack of attacking opportunities on transition ball.
While important to what the Scarlets did, as it largely is to any team given how it’s often the most effective form of attack, it was far from the only string to their bow.
So while Wales’ issues at defensive breakdowns when it comes to completing turnovers has stripped them of some attacking opportunities, it’s not a complete reliance as some would have you believe.
Back to the idea of changing patterns though and we’ve seen Wales adopt an asymmetrical 1-3-2-2 pod formation. It’s similar to what Japan used in the World Cup, while Ireland are on a similar journey implementing it.
The idea is to spread the forwards across the pitch, with one holding their width out on one touchline and another two on the other flank. If done correctly, it can lead to an all-court game that provides the defence with several pictures to deal with and can be very hard to contain.
Just think back to Tomos Williams try in Dublin in February. The way Wales worked through the phases, presenting the Ireland defence with plenty to think about given the spread of options, was promising.
And then the work to create the line-break – an offload from Alun Wyn Jones to Dan Biggar – was the sort of smart ball-handling Pivac will want.
Even in Friday’s tryless defeat to Ireland, again in Dublin, there were some signs of what Wales want to do in this area.
Let’s be crystal clear. Wales didn’t fire a shot on Friday.
In fact, baring a short spell after half-time, the gun didn’t even leave the holster.
Yet, a 15-phase move – their longest of the match – probably pointed the way towards what Wales want to do.
From a lineout, Wales work a solid first-phase move that sees Jonathan Davies free Josh Adams with an inside ball. As they were under Gatland, Wales are still largely creative on first-phase ball – the challenge is retaining that creativity beyond that.
From there, Wales are on the front foot and playing with speed. The next phase has Wales set up with Dan Biggar at first-receiver and options both inside and out.
From there, Wales go through phases, with a few key points of interest.
They play off 10, rather than 9 – with nearly all the forward options running off Biggar when they look to push the tempo. Given where Wales’ strengths are, it’s probably a good call.
There’s also a lot of intricacies and nuances which are based upon confusing the defence with options. There are wingers and other outside backs coming in at first receiver and inside options off Biggar as well as pods outside him to target the fringes and combat the rush defence.
In particular, the use of an outside back stepping up at first-receiver works well to get the ball out wide to Tipuric – with Owen Watkin setting up a pod of forwards before firing off a pull-back pass to Leigh Halfpenny.
On occasion, you also have forwards as distributors, while, in a format like this, the offload game should be used wisely to pierce defences.
That’s the basic blueprint and it all plays to the all court idea Pivac laid down in Llanelli.
Even in the dour Scotland game, you briefly saw how this philosophy wants to be played. Across three phases in the second-half, Watkin steps in at first-receiver repeatedly – with Biggar offering himself as a short option line that would normally be run by a forward.
With the Scarlets, Pivac wanted his players to be capable of playing the ball regardless of where they were on the pitch. The use of a running fly-half in Rhys Patchell kept the defence honest but also forced team-mates to shoulder responsibility.
That blueprint is largely in place with Wales, given how many different players are expected to step up at first-receiver.
Yet, given I’m writing this piece, the blueprint isn’t working, is it?
So why isn’t it working?
Well, that’s the big question.
There’s likely several reasons why things aren’t going to plan from that blueprint above.
Perhaps the first question you have to ask, before you even take to the field, is how feasible is it with the players you have to hand?
For all the criticism he received, Rob Howley had developed a largely effective attacking gameplan over the past few years based on efficiency and finding ways of getting key ball-carriers touches in ways that didn’t rely on a wider gameplan that Warren Gatland had tried and failed to implement in the autumn of 2017.
Do Wales genuinely have the players to play this brand of rugby at Test level? And, just as importantly, are the players buying into this gameplan?
At this stage, it’s difficult to ascertain the answers to those questions. Above all, Wales developing the attack takes time and it’s hard to make too many judgements at this stage that aren’t knee-jerk.
It’s made even harder by the fact Wales have barely put together enough phases this autumn to really assess the attack.
That largely comes down to the lack of a platform – in which there is plenty to unpack.
For starters, the lack of a solid lineout is massively hampering Wales’ attack. Like much of Pivac’s coaching ticket, Jonathan Humphreys has been overly ambitious in what he’s trying to do – taking out a key lineout forward in Justin Tipuric in order to free him up as a distributing option off first-phase.
The issue is, along with Ken Owens’ injury, the lineout has struggled as a result.
The same goes for Wales’ speed of ball and their ball retention at the breakdown.
Again, there’s a few different facets around this fact. Wales aren’t blessed with big ball-carriers so it’s about doing smart things to influence the contact.
That can be offloading or tip-on passes to move the point of contact, or being super efficient with the clearout.
As the pressure has grown around the Wales team externally, the number of offloads has dropped, so too the tip-on passes.
Against France in the Six Nations, they made 16 offloads. Against Ireland on Friday, it was just one.
If Wales are to dictate the contact and make their ball retention simpler, and in turn produce more of an attacking platform, then the offloading game needs to be committed to, not shied away from when the going gets tough.
Again, whether the players have confidence in that system has to be questioned – with Wales looking off when they tried pull-back or tip-on passes in Dublin.
There is also the concern that Pivac’s attacking platform does spread the pitch too wide, making ball retention hard with a lack of support.
Ultimately, it’s very hard to implement a new shape in attack when players are going backwards.
So where do Wales go next?
Well, this is where coaches really earn their money.
Wales have little in the way of a plan B in place other than an aerial kicking game for territory and possession.
Unfortunately, the aerial prowess that has defined Wales for the past few years has largely deserted them this autumn.
Even against Scotland, when the conditions and a failing Scottish lineout called for low, sweeping kicks behind, Wales stuck to their guns with the high ball – resulting in aerial Russian roulette given the wind.
So somewhere on the list will be defining a clearer out when things aren’t working – as they haven’t been this autumn.
Wales need to find ways to win games when the attack isn’t firing otherwise defeat is going to become a familiar feeling.
As for how the attack progresses moving forward, it could be time for a change in selection.
Wales appeared to grow into the system as the initial run of Six Nations games went on – largely in part to the work of the likes of Ross Moriarty, Josh Navidi and Jake Ball in the pack.
And in the backs, Lloyd Williams, while perhaps not the future of the scrum-half jersey after four years in Test wilderness, showed the importance to a nine with quick delivery from the base of a ruck.
And there could be questions elsewhere in the back division about whether a different fly-half could cause more trouble to defences, or whether a playmaking option in midfield or the back-three is needed?
And, ultimately, whether new, young faces might be easier to mould into the gameplan than the existing core group?
Those are the questions facing Pivac and Jones when it comes to Wales’ attack.
We’ve yet to really see a ‘Wayne Pivac Wales team’ as you’d expect in attack. Not my words, but the words of the man himself.
Patience is required, but that’s quickly running out.
-- to www.walesonline.co.uk