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Wayne Pivac: Former Wales coach to watch World Cup from afar

Wales won 13 games, lost 20 and drew one in Wayne Pivac's three-year tenure as head coach
Wales won 13 games, lost 20 and drew one during Wayne Pivac's three-year tenure as head coach

The date and time was set in Wayne Pivac's calendar - 10 September, 2023 in Bordeaux. He would be leading Wales - on his 61st birthday - in the Rugby World Cup against Fiji, the nation he used to coach.

But things did not work out like that.

Pivac was replaced by Warren Gatland as Wales head coach in December 2022.

When Wales' World Cup campaign begins, he will be 8,000 miles away in Japan preparing for the domestic season with his new club NEC Green Rockets.

"I was most looking forward to the Fiji game because, having lived in and coached Fiji and coaching Wales, and that game happens to be on my birthday," said Pivac.

"So it was going to be a big day, and I was looking forward to a big celebration in the changing room afterwards. It was not to be."

Wayne Pivac during his time as Wales head coach
Wayne Pivac's spell as Wales head coach included a Six Nations title and Test match win in South Africa, as well as home defeats against Italy and Georgia

This is the not the first time Pivac has just missed out on coaching at a World Cup, after he quit the Fiji job in January 2007 ahead of the tournament later that year, citing family reasons.

"The World Cup is a pinnacle for player or coach and I would have loved to have gone, so there was that early disappointment," said Pivac.

"I always think things happen for a reason. I was fortunate enough to coach Fiji at the World Cup sevens in Hong Kong and we won. So I've had a taste of a World Cup tournament, albeit not 15s.

"I'm 26 years into a professional coaching career and have been fortunate to have had the career I've had.

"To see the world and to do your sport and be paid to do it, you should not take anything for granted and my experience in coaching is things can be taken away from you.

"You need to enjoy and cherish every moment you're in the position."

Given the manner in which Pivac was relieved of his duties, one might assume he would not want Wales to thrive at the World Cup.

The fact he regularly still refers to Wales as "we" dispels that idea.

"I want the boys to do well," Pivac told BBC Sport Wales.

"It's as simple as that - I support them. I still speak to a number of them on a regular basis and after living in Wales for nine years, I see that as home.

"I have moved on. I'll be watching the World Cup with excitement, like everybody. I wish them well because I know they're working hard and I hope it pays off."

Pivac insists he has dealt with the emotion of leaving Wales as he focuses on his new challenge.

"Initially you go through a range of emotions - disappointment, frustration - then that sort of moves to a little bit of anger," said Pivac.

"Time is a great healer, and I was fortunate enough I went to New Zealand for my son's wedding and it was great catching up with family, and just a distraction from rugby.

"Four weeks out of Wales was probably a good thing for me at that time. When I came back,the support from friends and people in the rugby community that I didn't know who messaged me was uplifting.

"We've got friends for life there now, so by the time I left Wales the whole focus has been on the new role.

"There is always a silver lining and the misfortune of not going to the World Cup gives me another opportunity to live in another country and another culture.

"You have to look at the positives in every scenario. I live with a half-full glass attitude, I always have."

Land of the Rising Sun

So why Japan?

"Once the Wales contract ended it was about having a look at what was out there," said Pivac.

"I wanted a break, I managed to do that and regrouped mentally. What I was after was something that would be a project and different from international rugby.

"NEC had just gone down from the top division to the second division and were looking for a rebuild, an experienced coach, and it seemed to be a nice fit.

"I have been to Japan a couple of times and it's a lovely culture. The coaching side, initially through interpreters, was a challenge so you are out of your comfort zone."

The move meant a reunion with his former Scarlets and Wales second row Jake Ball.

"Before signing any contract, you speak to people to find out answers to questions you may have," said Pivac.

"Jake's been fantastic because I had him from day one at the Scarlets and we've got a great relationship.

"We'd had some success there and won a Six Nations together [in 2021].

"He's been good to give me an understanding of the rugby here, how the clubs are run and some of the pitfalls to look out for."

Pivac's brief when the season officially starts in December will be to return his side to Japan's top tier.

But as he prepares for pre-season, he will keep an eye on the World Cup - despite Tokyo being seven hours ahead - and particularly Wales' opening game against a buoyant Fiji.

"We've seen against England and France, Fiji are no mugs and have improved in the areas they needed to improve, in particular the set-piece," said Pivac.

"This now makes them a threat to the top eight sides in the world.

"Fiji bring a lot of X-factor athletes to the table and we saw that a couple of autumns ago against Wales.

"The difference between the two teams at times could be discipline. Wales will need to be very disciplined in terms of defence.

"There's going to be a lot of big collisions. Wales players will be tested defensively with the Fiji footwork and the offload game.

"Fiji are more equipped to play the off-loading game than Wales are, which makes them dangerous, but they have been known to implode, which they did against Wales in 2021.

"Fiji know they're going to have to be disciplined around the tackle area because they like to put big shots in and that could also play into Wales' hands if they get that wrong and are a little high.

"Wales' attack at the moment is something they'll be working hard on and wanting to score more tries, especially against Fiji, who themselves will probably score a few."

Fiji coach Wayne Pivac and Sireli Bobo with the Melrose Trophy after defeating New Zealand to win the 2005 Sevens Rugby World Cup
Fiji coach Wayne Pivac and Sireli Bobo with the Melrose Trophy after defeating New Zealand to win the 2005 Sevens Rugby World Cup

Fiji, in seventh, are the top world-ranked side in Pool C going into the tournament, ahead of Australia (ninth), Wales (10th), Georgia (11th) and Portugal (16th).

Pivac believes this will matter little and says Wales will be targeting top spot.

"World rankings play a part every four years in sorting out seedings but it skews things a little bit," said Pivac.

"If I was with Wales now, I wouldn't be going in worrying we're ranked below this or that team.

"We'd be looking at the work we've done in camp over the last few months and be confident we can get a job done against Fiji, Georgia and Portugal, and then play Australia for a place against the first or second ranked team in England's pool.

"That's how Wales I'm sure are going into it, thinking they've just got to get over that first hurdle, and then they're looking good, so long as they can be consistent from that point on."

Fiji represent Wales' first hurdle. Pivac will be willing them on, just from his Japan home rather than the Bordeaux stands.

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