WELSH rugby recently said goodbye to head coach Warren Gatland after a memorable, not always smooth, but ultimately successful 12-year period.
The Kiwi – who has twice coached the British & Irish Lions, and will make it a third when he leads them in South Africa in two years time – rejuvenated a Wales side who were in a state of disarray after crashing out of the 2007 Rugby World Cup.
In the mean time, the 56-year-old will return to his native New Zealand to coach Chiefs, the Super Rugby outfit, in Waikato, with fellow countryman Wayne Pivac, the former Scarlets coach, tasked with taking the team forward.
Much has been made of the impressive squad depth which Gatland was able to build in his final years in charge, with supporters optimistic about where the team can go in the near future.
So, where do Wales currently stand as we prepare for a changing of the guard?
An exciting blend of youth and experience
With the average age of the current squad standing at 27, you would say that Wales have got the balance between youth and experience almost spot on.
There is a fine line between allowing players to carry on well into their 30s, and risk them being past their best, and then asking too much of the younger generation who are just cutting their teeth at test level.
The totemic Alun Wyn Jones and vastly-experienced campaigners in Ken Owens, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar and Jonathan Davies have complimented players such as Aaron Wainwright, Dillon Lewis, Tomos Williams, Owen Watkin and Josh Adams, all of whom have come into the side and contributed at different stages.
The potential of the team is something that should really excite the incoming Pivac, who will be keen to prove that he is the man to continue the good work of Gatland.
A talented squad with obvious areas for improvement
Wales’ most obvious shortcoming at the World Cup was their inability to get over the gain line consistently. This was brought to the fore against South Africa in the semi-final, and in the Bronze Final against New Zealand – where Wales made 61 more carries (165) than the All Blacks, but made 156 less metres (418 v 574).
Now, Wales fans should be encouraged by the fact that Pivac had success with a team who did not have an abundance of ball-carrying brutes.
Winning the then-Guinness Pro 12 in 2016-17, and reaching the semi-final of the Heineken Champions Cup a year later, the former Fiji coach was able to compensate for a lack of carrying prowess by keeping the ball alive in contact via offloads and quick, decisive passing.
You only have to look at their wins against Bath and La Rochelle to see what a Pivac game plan looks like when it comes together perfectly.
With the likes of Tipuric and James Davies – who are both comfortable linking the play between the forwards and backs – Wales have players who are used to playing in the way that Pivac will surely look to implement.
While it will of course be a harder task to be successful on the international stage without winning the arm-wrestles, there is at least a blueprint to be followed, and ideally adapted in time.
A new owner of the famous number 10 jersey?
With 79 caps to his name, Dan Biggar was one of the foremost players of the Gatland era, playing starring roles in many of Wales’ successes in the last decade.
After the untimely injury to Gareth Anscombe – who was so impressive in Wales’ Grand Slam triumph in the Six Nations – Biggar stepped in and did not let his country down throughout the World Cup, with his composure and impressive game-management skills proving vital at key stages.
While his contribution to the team has never been in doubt, the criticism levelled at him for perhaps not being the most forward-thinking outside-half is a fair one.
Having worked with Rhys Patchell – a different type of fly-half to Biggar – at the Scarlets, Pivac may feel inclined to involve the 17-cap stand-off more in the years to come.
The 26-year-old has an undoubted ability of being able to bring the ball to the line, keeping defences honest and adding variety to the attack. He also possesses a big boot, which can be utilised when the options to go forward are limited.
Of course, Anscombe will feel as if he deserves the chance to resume his role as the number one option, and so he should, given the form he was showing before a cruel knee injury stunted his progress.
Pivac will have no shortage of quality options available to him. In addition to the three listed above, you also have Jarrod Evans – who narrowly missed out on World Cup selection to Patchell – as well as Dan Jones from the Scarlets, eight-cap Sam Davies and 18-year-old Ioan Lloyd, who has been pulling up trees with Bristol Bears.
Welsh fans will hope that the former Auckland policeman will be able to replicate what made his Scarlets side so successful, as well as doing his best to plug the holes which were exposed against quality opposition at the World Cup.