6N: Gatland hopes Anscombe critics lay off after Grand Slam
CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Gareth Anscombe hasn't had it easy from Wales rugby fans for four years. Coach Warren Gatland hopes that ends now that he's won them silverware.
The flyhalf-cum-fullback was man of the match as Wales clinched the Six Nations and the Grand Slam on Saturday in Cardiff. Anscombe defied a wet and slippery ball to kick it between the posts seven times out of seven, and set up their only try that launched the 25-7 victory.
"He was outstanding," Gatland said.
Anscombe did it after having to change his game by shifting early from flyhalf to fullback, making way for the more popular Dan Biggar, in the rain and wind.
The Welsh-born Biggar has been playing for Wales for a decade, and was flyhalf when their previous Six Nations title in 2013. He's been reliable and a match-winner. Anscombe came into the squad in 2015 and has yet to be embraced by Wales fans. He's not sure why.
He was born in New Zealand to a Welsh mother, who named him for 1970s great Gareth Edwards. He won the 2011 world junior title in a New Zealand side with Beauden Barrett and Brad Shields, and played Super Rugby for the Blues and Chiefs. He never hid his Welsh heritage, and Gatland drew him to Wales in 2014. By the next year he was in the squad, and made his debut just before the 2015 Rugby World Cup, where he was the starting fullback in the quarterfinal loss to South Africa. He has 27 caps and will be at the upcoming Rugby World Cup in Japan.
To counter his Welsh critics, Anscombe has tried hard to show he loves Wales. He's even learned the Welsh anthem, which he admitted wasn't easy.
Anscombe finally became the starting flyhalf last November, and Gatland stuck by him through this Six Nations. Of Wales' ongoing record 14-test winning streak, he has played in 12 and started nine.
But he's always seemed to be upstaged by Biggar. Wales played better in the opening comeback win against France when Biggar replaced Anscombe, who was struggling in the wet. Biggar got the start against Italy but didn't ignite the backline. Against England, Anscombe started and played the first hour, but Biggar made the match-winning plays in the last quarter.
Against Scotland, Anscombe had to move to fullback and didn't shine. But Gatland trusted him to start the Six Nations decider against Ireland. But just minutes in, George North was lost to an arm injury forcing a backline shuffle, bringing Biggar in and moving Anscombe out to fullback. On a day when kicking for territory was mandatory, Anscombe handled the Irish pressure with aplomb, kept the kicking duty from the world-class Biggar, and was perfect.
"He probably wasn't at his best against Scotland last weekend when we moved him back there because he hadn't played there for so long," Gatland said. "But he was comfortable today and able to handle making the change pretty early in the game. He did it exceptionally well.
"It hasn't always been easy for him because he's had to really fight hard to earn that respect from the Welsh public, and there's always that debate over the No. 10s, it does put extra pressure on players."
Anscombe showed his class just a minute in, when his "lovely little chip," in Gatland's words, off the outside of his right boot was caught and scored from by fellow back Hadleigh Parkes.
Anscombe has licence from Gatland to thrill, in a way that Biggar doesn't, and Anscombe said, "It's about trying to pick your moments. It hasn't all been smooth sailing for myself but I'm glad that one came off for me and Parkesy."
Conditions were tricky, he added, but they were confident that it was better in the wet weather to be in front than playing catchup.
The victory was hard-earned, Anscombe said. "It's a special group that work pretty hard for each other."