In the early 1970s, the world of football was dominated, both at club level and internationally, by the pioneering total football tactic of the Dutch as Ajax of Amsterdam won three European Cups on the bounce between 1970 and 1972, while the Netherlands national team reached the World Cup Final in 1974.
It was all on the back of this system which revolved around the fluid movement of the players between positions. Defenders, midfielders and forwards interchanged, all while managing to maintain a semblance of shape, as the team expanded when in position, and then contracted when defending.
If you’re thinking ‘hang on, I thought this was a rugby blog?’, then just stay with me a second, because there is a wider point to all this.
When Rhys Patchell left Cardiff Blues in 2016, it was against a backdrop of Gareth Anscombe being placed in the number ten shirt by Warren Gatland, with many annoyed at the time, and some still to this day, that we let a homegrown star go in favour of an imported player who took a while to settle at the Arms Park.
The debate over whether it should have been Patchell or Anscombe preferred at outside-half has now reached the Team Wales setup two years down the line, with both in the squad touring the Americas this summer.
However, my statement at the time of Patchell’s departure from Cardiff Blues is still the same as it is now. Just like with the total football principle, you don’t have to be named in a position to play there.
Rhys Patchell and Gareth Anscombe are very different outside halves.
Looking at Anscombe first, and he is very comfortable standing at first receiver phase-after-phase in an attacking set. He likes to dictate the play, scanning the defensive line and has the quick feet to pull in defenders flat to the line and then fashion a break for himself or pick a pass for those in the space created outside him.
From all three clips it is clear how keen Anscombe is to influence the game and make something happen as much as possible, from trying to carry himself in the first clip, to offloading in the second and getting back into first receiver in the next phase, and then wrapping around in the third to be back on Alun Wyn’s shoulder after putting him through the gap.
Every time he takes the ball to the line he is holding the attention of the inside defenders, which means they either switch off from their outside shoulders, or plant their feet and leave themselves open to stepped past on the inside.
Patchell, on the other hand, is slightly more maverick than Anscombe, preferring to step away from first receiver during phase play on occasion and pop up slightly wider in the line, as well as sliding in to the outside half slot when there is quick front foot ball on offer.
With Patchell he’s always looking to move forward onto the ball, so if like in the second and third clips he has to be outside Hadleigh Parkes to get the space then so be it, and then he’s got the ability to exploit the space or the poor defensive line.
Then, when he’s ready as in the first clip, he slots in at first receiver with some go forward ball and backs himself with his pace and size to take on the defence that he spots is a bit disjointed and scores the try.
Despite having different skillsets though, both players have the potential to compliment each other perfectly in the 10/15 axis which has become quite prominent in Welsh club rugby this season.
Cardiff Blues have utilised Jarrod Evans at fly-half, while Scarlets have opted for Dan Jones on occasion, with Anscombe and Patchell pushed back to full-back for their respective sides, and it has worked extremely well.
Of course, it hasn’t been the first time for either player that they have worked as part of a partnership at fly-half/full-back, as they did it on a number of occasions in their two seasons together at the Arms Park, and from that we have an idea of how they would function as a duo.
Looking at these three setups from a game against Treviso, and you’ve got Anscombe at first receiver with Patchell wider in the line, Patchell at first receiver and Anscombe wider in the line, and then the split first receivers, offering options either side of the breakdown.
In practice, that gives us plenty of scope when attacking from all areas of the field, and allows both players to express themselves.
When Gareth Anscombe stands at 10 and Rhys Patchell slots in slightly wider in the line, it adds the extra dimension of width to the attack through the hands of a player comfortable at first receiver in the outside channels.
Patchell draws the man and makes the final pass to a winger, as in the first clip, or he has the vision and passing range to fire a long miss-pass off either hand and set up a counter attack from deep, or put a winger over in the corner.
Anscombe can draw the inside defenders and offer some extra space out wide, or shift the ball wide quickly and give Patchell the opportunity to pick a pass and orchestrate the players outside him.
Of course, as part of the 10/15 axis and the idea that it doesn’t matter what number jersey you wear, Patchell spends time at first receiver as well, and more on the terms that he enjoys, arriving with front foot ball and taking advantage of disjointed defence.
While in the first clip it is a standard phase as part of an attacking set that sees Patchell at 10 with Anscombe out wide, both the second and third clips see the Scarlets playmaker step up into the first or second receiver slot on the back of Anscombe carries.
From there he can either back himself to get over the line, or try and make something happen with ball in hand. On the occasion of the third clip he puts boot into ball for the outside players to chase as Treviso re-organise.
Then you’ve got Patchell and Anscombe working together to secure line breaks from phase play.
The first clip sees the split first receiver setup, with Anscombe at 10 on the openside of the ruck, allowing Patchell the opportunity to ghost down the blindside and make some good yards with the assistance of Lloyd Williams.
On the other hand the second and third clips show Patchell stood at 10 initially, but as Anscombe returns to the attacking line Patchell slides out the back of the line for the screen pass and has time and space to take the ball to the line, draw some defenders and fire a perfect pass for Dan Fish to score in the corner.
These examples all came from games two or three years old, and the potential for the partnership to flourish was evident even then. It will always be a regret of mine that Patchell and Anscombe couldn’t stay together and work on the 10/15 axis over time in Cardiff Blues colours.
However, a few seasons down the line and with Patchell a bit older and wiser to game management responsibilities, and Anscombe now settled and really firing in Wales, they have the opportunity to make their mark in Wales jerseys.
This is why, when the Anscombe v Patchell debate rears it’s head my answer will always be ‘both’.