Analysis: The Magic Man

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Over the last four weeks Cardiff Blues have taken a disappointing three straight last-minute losses to start the season and turned them on their heads, winning four in a row, three of which have come from at least 10 points down.

The reasons for that have been plenty; a big home win over Munster giving the team confidence, a run of home games in familiar conditions and John Mulvihill seemingly getting to grips with the squad just some of them.

However, at the heart of this run of wins has been one man. A man who, in the time he has been in Wales, has been frequently criticised and often underrated but has continually turned out high quality performances, the level of which have gone up again in the last few weeks.

That man is Gareth Anscombe.

It is no surprise to anyone who watches Cardiff Blues regularly that the 27-year-old is now starting to earn plaudits and being tipped to start for Wales this November, but there are still people out there that doubt.

Do many of them hold some kind of dislike due to Anscombe being born in New Zealand and having played for the Baby Blacks? Absolutely. Do others not jump on the bandwagon because he has a touch to much flair after years of Dan Biggar in the red 10 jersey? Probably.

Fear not though, I am here to ask you rugby sceptics to look deeper at his game, and the narrow minded amongst you to give your heads a proper wobble, with a look at how Anscombe has at time dragged us to wins by himself.

Now I could just fill this with clips of every single thing Gareth Anscombe has done well this last few weeks, and it would be a lengthy but perhaps slightly simplistic analysis.

It is important to start with underlining his basic skillset though, which is considerably higher than most players. He has the footballing ability, the passing range and the full-back skills to claim the high balls, as well as a rugby playing brain to position himself and see attacks developing.

The main aspect of his play is how he controls the game from fly-half though, whether that be first receiver or playing out the back of a screen pass from the forwards.

Anscombe analysis 2

The screen pass relies heavily on the forward at first receiver and the dummy runner on his shoulder to create the space for Anscombe, but he still has work to do to hold on to the ball just long enough to take the defender out of the game.

Then it’s his vision to float a perfectly weighted pass over the Munster player for Josh Navidi to carry into a yard of space out wide.

It’s at first receiver that Anscombe is most impressive and destructive though.

Anscombe analysis 10

By taking the ball close to the line he draws the attention of the second row with the black skull cap, turning his shoulders inside and keeping the Cardiff Blues outside runners on the defender’s blindside.

When the defender with the blonde hair stays wider and deeper to track Willis Halaholo on the pull back pass, Anscombe can spin the long, flat pass to Rhys Gill to carry through the space left by the poor body position of the second row.

It’s all about the flat first receiver position and vision of the fly-half that makes that break, putting Gill through the gap, but he has to keep reading the opposition.

Anscombe analysis 7

This time Anscombe is flat to the line again and fixing even the outside defender, who’s head and body are turned in-field having to track the fly-half’s progress and keep an eye on Rey Lee-Lo on the crash ball line.

As a result he leaves a huge gap on his outside shoulder, which Anscombe reads brilliantly again and slides the pass wider to lead Halaholo through a gap for a thoroughly deserved try on the night.

Anscombe analysis 17

That ability to hold onto the ball until the last second is what creates so much of Cardiff Blues good play through Anscombe, makes it seem like he has an age on the ball even when an opposition defender is blitzing him.

Just sliding to the blitzer’s outside shoulder means Ross Moriarty outside the blitzer cannot commit on either Lee-Lo or Jason Harries and Anscombe can just slot the centre into the gap that opens for a half-break when nothing appears on at the start of the phase.

It’s not just others that the fly-half’s play creates space for though.

Anscombe analysis 13

Taking the ball to the line, especially when spotting a mis-match against a tight five forward, puts the defence under huge pressure, and the brilliance of Anscombe as we’ve seen above is his subsequent decision making to take advantage of the space created.

On this occasion the defender loses his nerve and moves away from the fly-half towards Scott Andrews on his shoulder before Anscombe has released the ball, allowing him to just slide through the gap left untouched, despite Cheetahs initially appearing to be well organised in their defensive line.

This is why from this moment forward he shall be referred to as ‘The Magic Man’, with the ability to manipulate defenders body positions in such a way that he can take advantage of and create a line break for himself or those outside him.

There have been points in games the last few weeks where the opposition have seemingly run out of ideas to deal with Gareth Anscombe, and then just for good measure he produces something like this.

Is he a more than effective full-back? Absolutely. But is he alos the form fly-half that Wales have right now? Without a doubt.

Gareth Anscombe for Wales.

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