Could fly-half Gareth Anscombe slide into Wales' plans for the Six Nations? We analyse his display during Cardiff Blues' 11-9 win over the Dragons
Northern hemisphere rugby has long cowered in an inferiority complex with regard to New Zealand. That is largely understandable – the all-conquering All Blacks have cast more of a solar eclipse than a shadow in recent times.
As such, Gareth Anscombe signing for the Cardiff Blues was always likely to cause a significant stir. Plundering 84 points as the Baby Blacks took the 2011 Junior World Championship, he tasted Super 15 glory after joining a fine Chiefs side 18 months later.Those accolades tell you everything about his undeniable pedigree, which is matched by ambition.
It would be extremely disrespectful to Dan Biggar, who enjoyed a fantastic autumn, to even suggest Anscombe will walk into the red No. 10 shirt for the electric encounter with England on February 6. However, in sparking the Blues to an 11-9 win over the Dragons last Thursday, he laid down credible credentials for some Six Nations involvement.
Now, in the maelstrom of ardent rugby opinion that is Wales, universal approval is rare. For fly-halves, scrutiny intensifies acutely – just look at James Hook. Anscombe has not been perfect by any means. Missing touch from a penalty in the dying minutes of a home reverse to the Dragons on Boxing Day was one glaring error, and a few chargedowns against Treviso and London Irish, also showed his fallability.
But the man himself, still just 23, is admirably laid back and level-headed. On picking up his man of the match award at Rodney Parade, he refused to fuel headline seekers.
“The Six Nations isn’t on my radar at all to be honest,” Anscombe said. “I’m starting to find my feet and adapt my game to over here. And I’m enjoying it.”
Measured, modest words indeed. Still, his individual efforts during an ugly slug-fest will have had Warren Gatland rubbing his hands. Here is a run-down.
This was an area Anscombe highlighted himself as one he was not entirely happy with, and his first contribution to the game – an overcooked up-and-under – would have been frustrating. The ball sails over the 22, allowing Dragons full-back Tom Prydie far too much time to call the mark:
Later on in the first half, he also saw this penalty attempt fade to the left of the posts from 50 metres out:
However, persistence is a mark of class and Cardiff’s adopted son tightened things up markedly. Contestable kicking is a massive part of Test rugby these days, and this effort was precisely on the money.
Centres Gavin Evans and Cory Allen can flood through on the chase and compete for the ball:
The Blues enjoyed 67 per cent of both possession and territory during the opening 40 minutes, but only boasted a 5-3 lead at the break. To his credit, Anscombe took it upon himself to tick over the scoreboard at the very first opportunity in the second period.
Spying that referee Ian Davies is playing a penalty advantage for a Dragons offence at the preceding ruck, he calmly drops back into the pocket and hits a fine drop-goal:
It was not all plain sailing though. Anscombe hoiked this restart into touch on the full, a lapse that foreshadowed a long period of Dragons pressure:
That said, he also stepped up to nail three points under pressure with 12 minutes remaining. Into a stiff breeze, this was as tough as the two Anscombe missed from the tee. In this case, a solid strike bisected the posts to decide the match:
Pulling strings and firing passes
Primarily, a fly-half must be a decisive organiser and a clear communicator. In attack, that means trusting instincts and manoeuvring runners in order to suit a gameplan.
The build-up to Allen’s try– the only one of the game– lasted 17 phases, as the Blues showed patience and faith in their structures. Essentially, Mark Hammett’s approach constituted forward pods running off scrum-half Tavis Knoyle before probing in wider channels with accurate, sharp passing.
For both facets, Anscombe was key. Circled here, he is already positioning runners for a phase ahead of what is happening currently – not unlike a snooker player thinking one shot into the future:
By the time Knoyle has bounced back to the right on the next phase, Josh Navidi – circled in white – is back on his feet and, with the support of fellow forwards, bursts through the line:
When Anscombe stepped in at first receiver throughout this move, the outside backs threatened – Evans here testing tacklers on an outside arc:
Eventually, though Lyn Jones‘ side was very good in defence, the Dragons ran out of numbers and Allen crossed:
The reverse angle offers excellent insight into Anscombe’s vision. He senses that wing Matthew Pewtner (circled in red) has bitten slightly, turning his shoulders in on being attracted by Lucas Amorosino’s decoy line. A fast, flat miss-pass sets Allen away:
Not long afterwards, Anscombe manufactures another line-break, this time in the middle of the field. Brok Harris rushes out of the line, tempted by the distance between first and second receiver. However, the pace of the pass beats him. Gethin Jenkins takes advantage of the dog-leg and, most impressively, Anscombe follows up in support to take a return from his loosehead prop:
A neat step of his left foot nearly beats Hallam Amos and foreshadows some more excellent running, which we will come onto shortly.
Blues’ dynamic, industrious pack and centres got through the lion’s share of tackling. Anscombe did fell five runners, though – perhaps the pick coming here as goes low to help to chop down brawny Andrew Coombs:
Even so, there was an obvious miss too. In the second half, abrasive young Dragons centre Jack Dixon brushes Anscombe off too easily:
Even though Julian Savea gave him the brush off against New Zealand, one of Biggar’s key strengths– alongside aforementioned contestable kicking– is his one-on-one tackling. Shaun Edwards does not tolerate many mistakes in the Wales set-up.
Finally, we come to where Anscombe stands out. A history at full-back has bred impressive pace and an instinctive eye for the gap. Wearing ten, those qualities are just as valuable – especially late on when tacklers tire.
This gorgeous jink past Dixon providing a warning:
Having curved around into second receiver, Anscombe has more time and space to cause damage. But he can also make breaks from conventional positions:
Awareness is the fundamental skill at work here in what is a classic mismatch. Before even receiving the pass from Knoyle, Anscombe clocks that Dragons loosehead Phil Price (red circle) is lined up opposite him and rightly backs his speed:
Topping off an encouraging display, Anscombe does well to stay on his feet once he is caught in order for his support to catch up. Again, that is pure rugby sense.
To reiterate, the chances of him starting at the Millennium Stadium against England are minute. In all honesty, that would be a ridiculously fiery baptism to Test action.
Rhys Priestland and Owen Williams, two excellent players, are also in frame to assume the role of Biggar’s understudy. Just do not be surprised if Gatland opts to blood talented Mr Anscombe rather sooner than expected…
Read an interview with Gareth Anscombe in the February issue of Rugby World – on sale now.