Autumn Nations Cup: Wales aim to end poor 2020 with Italy double

By Gareth GriffithsBBC Sport Wales
Wales players celebrate a Nick Tompkins try against Italy in February 2020
Wales players celebrate a Nick Tompkins try against Italy in February 2020
Autumn Nations Cup: Fifth-place play-off - Wales v Italy
Venue: Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli Date: Saturday, 5 December Kick-off: 16:45 GMT
Coverage: Listen to commentary on BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru; watch on S4C and follow live text on the BBC Sport website and app.

So 2020 will finish as it began for Wayne Pivac's Wales, with a home match against Italy.

The circumstances could not be more contrasting. What has happened between the two Italian fixtures has shown how far Wales have fallen.

In February, Wales were beginning a fresh era under a new head coach who had taken over from the highly successful Warren Gatland.

In front of a near-capacity Cardiff crowd, Wales overwhelmed Italy with a 42-0 drubbing in their opening Six Nations game.

What a difference to next Saturday, when Italy will arrive at an empty Parc y Scarlets battling it out to finish fifth in the new but nondescript Autumn Nations Cup.

Pivac was at the height of his honeymoon period in February, but the world has changed dramatically since then amid the coronavirus crisis.

Seven defeats in nine games tell the story of 2020, with Wales falling to ninth in the world rankings. Pivac's only victories in the calendar year have come against Italy and Georgia.

Wales endured their worst Six Nations since 2007 and know the prospect of a first home defeat to Italy is unthinkable.

Wayne Pivac says Wales are slowly seeing the fruits of their labour

England encounter

There was a collective sigh of relief around Wales on Saturday night following the latest defeat under Pivac.

After all, many fans feared a heavier loss to England. Pivac's side produced an improved performance, especially in defence.

It was not the hammering many had predicted.

Rearguard resistance kept the scoreline to 24-13 and restricted the opposition to two tries.

There were encouraging performances from rookies Johnny Williams, Louis Rees-Zammit and James Botham, while number eight Taulupe Faletau offered a reminder of his abilities.

Wales were missing five British and Irish Lions in Liam Williams, Jonathan Davies, Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric and Ross Moriarty, as well as influential back-rower Josh Navidi.

And Wales also felt they were on the wrong end of some key refereeing decisions. England's first try should not have stood because Dan Biggar was taken out in the air when catching a high ball in the build-up.

How French referee Romain Poite missed that and why he did not listen to his television match official, only he can explain.

And explain he must, with Pivac intending to address some issues with World Rugby.

Questions were also raised about an Elliot Daly tackle on Josh Adams, while England replacement prop Ellis Genge took to social media to deny he headbutted Tomas Francis.

So there were reasons to feel a little cheerful, but for all those glimpses of positivity and expressions of Wales being wronged, stark statistics and glaring weaknesses remain.

Try-scorer Johnny Williams says Wales fans need to be patient as they build for 2023

Basic deficiencies

Wales should remain realistic following a contest in which they were second best for long periods.

If England's opening score had been ruled out, Eddie Jones' side would have had plenty of time to assert their superiority, while their six forwards on the replacements' bench ensured they maintained the ascendancy.

In a match featuring endless kicking, dogged defences and little attacking adventure, England were the dominant force.

The new attacking gameplan that was supposed to come with the arrival of Pivac and assistant Stephen Jones has not materialised, with only six tries in five matches since international rugby returned this autumn.

A lack of firm foundations has had a major effect on any attacking ambitions, with Wales' shaky set-piece as well as continued ill-discipline providing no platform.

Pivac also stated he would be seeking clarity from World Rugby on the scrum interpretations of referee Poite against England with Wales giving away five penalties.

All well and good, but these issues must be resolved on the field because referees' set-piece interpretations are always a factor.

Referees' views do not explain the continued lost line-outs, with four more going awry against England.

So with no solid basis under forwards coach Jonathan Humphreys, Wales have to make the most of what possession and territory they gain - 40% and 37% against England respectively - and they have not achieved that goal in recent times.

There was just one breakaway Wales try against England, which came from centre Johnny Williams after Biggar's charge down and hack through.

After that the Wales attack rarely threatened and relied mainly on offensive kicking tactics.

According to the official match statistics, Wales spent just 46 seconds in the England 22, with the near-16 minutes of possession they had.

They produced just two offloads and a pair of line breaks. It remains hard to work out what they are trying to achieve offensively.

Pivac was asked after the England game why the Wales attack could not make a dent in opposition defences.

His response suggested basic skills need to improve and mindsets must change.

"One is the pressure applied by the opposition and two is the lack of time working together in terms of the combinations, given the unavailability of some of the players," he said.

"Throw that into the mix and it is a change for a lot of people. Skillsets have to be worked on and it does take a bit of time."

The one exception was a rare second-half attack worked to the speedy Rees-Zammit, who almost outflanked England and British and Irish Lions wing Anthony Watson.

Louis Rees-Zammit won his third cap against England
Louis Rees-Zammit won his third cap against England

Pivac insisted releasing dangerous runners like the teenage Gloucester wing was the plan, but acknowledged the limitations which have made such endeavour the exception rather than the norm.

"It's not through want of trying, but it's the quality of ball we're trying to get," added Pivac.

"At the moment, that's a work-in-progress for us. There are areas of our game at the moment that are not allowing us to flow in the way he [Rees-Zammit] desperately needs."

Italian job

Autumn Nations Cup - final round
Saturday, 5 December
Georgia v Fiji12:45 GMT Murrayfield
Ireland v Scotland14:15 GMT Aviva Stadium
Wales v Italy16:45 GMT Parc y Scarlets
Sunday, 6 December
England v France14:00 GMT Twickenham

Wales have a final chance to end 2020 on a high as they look to complete that double over Franco Smith's side.

Italy's best result in Wales was a 2006 draw. If they improve on that next weekend, there will be shockwaves among the Welsh public.

So Wales are preparing to start and finish a turbulent year against the Italians and know they need a win to provide some positivity going into the 2021 Six Nations, plus some security for Pivac as he tries to build for the 2023 World Cup.

The final weekend of matches will also bring the curtain down on the Autumn Nations Cup.

The games had to be played for revenue purposes for the respective unions, but the quality has been poor and venues soulless without capacity crowds.

What the tournament has proved is what many already knew - international rugby requires spectators. Especially in Wales.

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