The Great Cardiff Blues Academy Graduate Battle

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As for any team in world rugby, losing your starting fly-half is a real blow, and that is more than true for Wales, who had placed such importance on the form and fitness of Gareth Anscombe going into the World Cup.

Having spent four years working to first establish him first at Cardiff Blues, and then with Wales, all the while dealing with some vociferous and frankly xenophobic abuse online and in the media, this past year had seen him finally become the almost unanimous choice to wear the red number ten jersey.

Leading the national team to a Grand Slam certainly helped with that, and it is a mark of a player when an entire playing philosophy is altered to become a better fit with their style, as well as to the credit of Anscombe himself who adapted to the game management skills required at the top level of international rugby.

However, there’s a saying in America’s National Football League of ‘next man up’, where the mentality is whether a player is dropped, injured or cut from the squad, you move on quickly to the ‘next man up’ who has to come in and do their job.

That has to now be true of Wales in their World Cup preparations, as while it is disappointing as a supporter and for the player personally to be ruled out, there must still be a competitive squad going out to Japan next month.

As a result we have to look at the options Gatland now has, and essentially he has three of them; take Rhys Patchell and Dan Biggar, take Jarrod Evans and Dan Biggar, or take all three.

Now I don’t think the latter option is particularly likely. Gatland has form for only taking two fly-halves to World Cups with an outside back able to step in to cover in emergencies, which Hadleigh Parkes can and has done at the Scarlets, and it allows him to take an extra back three specialist.

Gareth Anscombe England
Gareth Anscombe has been ruled out of the World Cup with an ACL injury

Therefore it is a contest between Patchell and Evans. This is what I’ve dubbed the Great Cardiff Blues Academy Graduate Battle. Catchy.

For my money, it’s Patchell’s to lose at this point. Rewind just over a year and he’s out in Argentina, nailing down the starting fly-half spot having helped Scarlets to a mightily impressive two years during which they’ve won the Pro12 and made the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup.

Last season was a really tough one for the former Glantaf pupil though, with concussion issues early in the season and then some poor form upon his return. His confidence looked shot and he was playing like a shadow of the man who was playing his best rugby just the season before.

However, he’s now had a full training camp to get back into shape, and put the demons of the last 12 months behind him in a bid to recapture that form.

His 11 test caps have given the 26-year-old an element of experience at test match level, and having been around the Wales squad for six years now, he knows what is expected of the fly-half.

Playing wise he has the vision to launch an attack from anywhere, has a surprising turn of pace to accelerate through a gap in the defence, possesses a booming right boot when kicking from hand and off the tee, and would slot in perfectly alongside Scarlets team-mates Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes and Jon Davies.

This is why I would start all four in the three-quarter line against England on Saturday.

Hadleigh Parkes France
Hadleigh Parkes can cover fly-half and work with Rhys Patchell

We know Warren Gatland wants to replicate the six-day turnaround between the games against Georgia and Australia in the pool stages, therefore few changes are expected, and this selection would see Patchell given the best chance to show he is coming back into some form ahead of the World Cup.

If he does show flashes of that he should then also start against Ireland two weeks later, as he’ll need minutes under his belt before heading to Japan.

This would be tough on Jarrod Evans, as it would likely mean he gets few or even no minutes to prove he is worthy of a place on the plane, but Gatland will have to be a bit cut-throat about his selections to ensure he has the squad ready and capable of competing at the World Cup.

Of course, if Patchell had a poor game against England, then that cut-throat aspect would go the other way, as I’d then drop him and start Evans in the home game against Ireland.

While I have concerns about his lack of experience at test level, and his game management ability hasn’t been properly proven yet, if you need a player to unlock a defence then look no further. Jinkin’ Jarrod can make even the best defences look silly with his sidestep and vision.

As for Biggar, his place remains on the bench in my team. He has become a key player off the bench, offering that steady hand in the last quarter of a game, and I don’t see a need to change that over the next two months.

This also keeps him out of harm’s way a touch more, while still exposing him to game time in order to ensure his match sharpness is at the required level.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Gatland approaches the next month, but if there’s one thing we have learned about him over the last 12 years, it’s that he always has a plan up his sleeve, and over the last two years it has invariably been the right one.

In Gatland we trust!

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