Analysis: The Magic Man at Autumn

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In Warren Gatland’s last Autumn Internationals in charge of Wales, his squad has come away with more positives than any previous November series since he took over.

A number of young players have gained valuable big game experience, combinations are starting to click with an important Six Nations on the horizon before the World Cup next September, and WalesOnline have worn out the phrase ‘strength in depth’ over the last few weeks.

There are a number of headlines to take away individually, with Nicky Smith ousting Rob Evans as starting loosehead, Dan Lydiate storming right back into the back row reckoning, and Josh Adams staking a claim to start on the wing ahead of Liam Williams.

For me though, and you may be starting to wonder ‘how many analysis pieces can be done on this player?’, Gareth Anscombe claiming top spot in the fly-half ranks is the big story of the Autumn.

Now, we looked at Anscombe’s early season form for Cardiff Blues a few weeks ago and along with some luck over the availability of Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell, he got the chance to stake his claim for the coveted red number ten jersey against Scotland, before holding on to it for the big games against Australia and South Africa.

With the step up in level from the Guinness Pro14 and Heineken Champions Cup to International Rugby there was some inevitable changes to his style of play, but he showed himself to be a rounded fly-half on this stage.

One of Dan Biggar’s great traits over the last few years of the Northampton man being first choice Wales fly-half has been his resilience in defence and quality when putting boot to ball.

Gareth Anscombe’s ability to slot into the kicking game, and vary it tactically from the straightforward up and under to the high hanging cross field kick that worked well against both Australia and South Africa, has been an asset to the team.

More impressive though has been his stepping up to the plate defensively. Against the Wallabies he made 10 tackles without a miss, leading the backs and including the above try saver on Samu Kerevi, and more than that his ability to play full-back contributes a great deal to the Wales defensive system.

Anscombe’s defensive positioning and reading of the game from 15 means Shaun Edwards is more than comfortable seeing his defensive system include the fly-half in the backfield alongside Leigh Halfpenny.

Hadleigh Parkes is capable of leading the defensive line from inside centre, and with Anscombe dropping deep it allows the wingers to stay up in that line and ensure a width remains to Wales in defence, preventing the possibility of a cross kick being successful or the opposition getting outside us easily.

Of course though, as ever with The Magic Man, it’s what he does with ball-in-hand that sets him apart.

Anscombe’s game of chess with the opposition begins with his ability to mix things up in attack, from kicking, to bringing a runner of his shoulder and sliding a pass out the back of a dummy runner.

His main attribute is his running game though, as it permanently keeps the inside defender worried that he’s going to step and take off, with even the second defender having to cut the game on his inside shoulder to ward off this danger.

It’s a big reason why he’s been the architect of much of Wales’ best attacking moments this Autumn.

Both of the defences are showing roughly the same shape here, with three blitz defenders preceding a dogleg outside defensive line designed to pick up any attackers running a line out of the back.

Anscombe breaks them down as he is so flat to the line and possesses such a great running threat, that he fixes the second blitz defender on himself, rather than picking up the runner outside him.

Then it’s just his vision and decision making that selects whether the short runner is the best option, or the longer pass out wide. Two good decisions, two excellent attacking opportunities. With this in mind it’s no wonder he has been the final pass on three of the four tries scored by Wales while he has been on the field this Autumn.

Nobody is saying that the number ten jersey is Gareth Anscombe’s for keeps. Dan Biggar and Rhys Patchell are two very high quality outside-halves in their own right and a lot can change over even the next few weeks.

Form and injury can come and go in a second, and Anscombe will have to continue this vein of form through the busy December and January period for Cardiff Blues to be in with a chance of starting the Six Nations, and even longer with the World Cup to come.

However, what November proved is what many of us have known all along. Gareth Anscombe is an international quality fly-half, and he can cut it in the big games. If the Six Nations started tomorrow, he would be the man.

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