Wales reap the benefits of Pivac's first-year experiments

Rugby Union - Six Nations Championship - Wales v England - Principality Stadium, Cardiff, Wales, Britain - February 27, 2021 Wales head coach Wayne Pivac before the match REUTERS/Rebecca Naden

CARDIFF (Reuters) - The knives were being sharpened for coach Wayne Pivac after his first year in charge of Wales ended with a paltry three wins from 10 games but a matter of weeks later he is being feted as his team eye what would be an extraordinary Grand Slam.

Saturday's 40-24 victory over England followed wins over Ireland and Scotland, both of whom had a man sent off, and suddenly, somehow, Welsh fans are no longer lamenting the good old days of Warren Gatland.

Following his hugely successful fellow New Zealander was always going to be a tough gig for Pivac and a string of injuries made things harder as they lost four out of five in the 2020 Six Nations, beating only Italy (twice) and Georgia in the year.

However, while England coach Eddie Jones was resting on his laurels and making minimal changes, Pivac - sometimes through necessity and sometimes through choice - used his first 12 months in the job to look at new players across all positions.

By the time England arrived in Cardiff for Saturday's game he was able to recall many of his big guns, but it was the new brigade that made the most impact, particularly tryscoring scrumhalf Kieran Hardy and replacement flyhalf Callum Sheedy.

Pivac was graceful under fire last year, explaining to an impatient Welsh public that the rebuilding job would take time, and he was understandably delighted with Saturday's success.

"We chose to go down a different route in the autumn. Once we get results, the public will get on board," he said. "We picked a squad to get results to win this tournament.

"We’ve had time together and a good bond in the group. They enjoy winning and hopefully we can press on further."

Pivac threw Sheedy on early to replace veteran Dan Biggar and was again rewarded, not least by the three late penalty kicks that took the game out of England's reach when it had been level at 24-24.

"I thought he was fantastic," he said of the Bristol flyhalf. "After missing a couple in Edinburgh, to come on and hit them, I was pleased for him.

"We were pretty pumped up when Callum kicked the third penalty - we were very happy for the players for the work they’ve put in. It looked like at 24-24, England were coming strong but we found another gear."

Wales travel to Italy on March 13 and are due to play France in Paris in what was scheduled as the final game of the championship on March 20 but now might not be as organisers try to reschedule France's game against Scotland, postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the French camp.

With fans excitedly talking up the Grand Slam, Pivac was trying to keep a lid on expectations.

"We’ve spoken about the importance of the next game," he said. "If we don't focus on that, it undoes the hard work we’ve already done."

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Ed Osmond)

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