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Monday, 3 December 2018

The Welsh Fly Half Debate

The Welsh fly-half debate

Phil Bennett and that try. Jonathan “Jiffy” Davies. And, of course, the King: Barry John. Wales have had more than their fair share of thrilling fly-halves over the years, players whose feet have made the proverbial twinkle-toed look more like clodhoppers. Every aspiring no 10 is held to an almost impossibly high standard because Welsh fans know what a proper fly-half should look like. And it’s really, really good.

This explains why Dan Biggar has never been adored in Wales the way that he might have been elsewhere. Consistently reliable, one of the best kickers in the world, relentlessly brave – and he kept them in the world cup last time round. He’s no Barry John but he’s a good player and he proved on the last Lions tour that he can play much flatter to get his backs moving, when asked.

But there’s no denying that, in Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell, Wales fans have players much closer to their ideal no 10. And, more importantly, that they are more likely to get Wales playing the type of attacking game that the Welsh coaches have repeatedly said they’re aiming for these days.

This autumn four different fly-halves got game time for Wales, although Jarrod Evans didn’t get much chance to show what he can do. Jiffy thinks that the fly-half jersey belongs to Anscombe now, but is he right? Here are the three strongest contenders for Welsh half-back glory.

Gareth Anscombe
The man in possession, as they say, although it’s hard to argue that Warren Gatland picked his strongest possible teams this autumn as he looked to strengthen squad depth – so it might be safer to say he was the last one to rent it.

Anscombe is a triple threat fly-half who confined Beauden Barrett to full-back when they played together for the Baby Blacks in 2011. Much was expected of Anscombe when he came to Wales (his mother is from Cardiff) four years ago although injuries have prevented him from living up to his reputation until recently.

This season, he has been in scintillating form for Cardiff Blues, albeit mostly from full-back, at the heart of most of their best moments. He hasn’t carried on that form for Wales this autumn but he has ironed out most of his mistakes (although he might want to practice kicking to touch), defended well, and got the backs moving.

He probably has the sharpest rugby brain of the three and Barry John has also given Anscombe his backing – no small accolade. It seems likely that he will keep the jersey for the opening 6 Nations game against France in Paris (although not certain).

Dan Biggar
Until now, Biggar has seen off all challengers since making the position his own in 2013. Given Gatland’s determination to strengthen his squad to avoid the same injury crisis that struck his team down in the last RWC, it is likely that Anscombe and Patchell would have been given chances this autumn anyway.

However, his move to Northampton Saints, which seriously curtails his availability for training camps, might also limit his chances. Gatland has been very clear recently that players based in Wales have an advantage because of his increased access (irrespective of the slightly complicated WRU rules around eligibility).

He has an outstanding kicking game and frequently collects his own up and unders although critics point to Wales’ reduced attacking ability with him at the helm. On the other hand, he gave an impressive attacking performance against Tonga, scoring a try and earning himself a Man of the Match award.

It’s difficult to imagine a better fly-half to have on the bench to see out tight games, as he proved against both Australia and South Africa. Coaches love to talk about “horses for courses” and “it’s a 23-man game” and they’re right. Biggar is the perfect 10 to have in your squad to give you flexibility.

Rhys Patchell
He is adored by the Scarlets faithful and certainly looked like the answer for Wales in the opening game against Scotland in Cardiff last 6 Nations. However, he struggled when England put him under pressure in the following game and against Leinster in the two knock-out games at the end of the season. He had a good summer tour but concussion has impacted his chances since then.

Like Anscombe, he is a triple-threat attacking fly-half and, also like Anscombe, can deploy those skills at 15 to devastating effect. His kicking range is perhaps slightly further than both his rivals although he is arguably less accurate than Anscombe and certainly less so than Biggar.

His understanding with fellow Scarlets backs Gareth Davies, Hadleigh Parkes, Jonathan Davies, and Leigh Halfpenny (as well as former Scarlet Liam Williams) means that he will always be comfortable stepping into a team where some or all of those players are involved.

That familiarity will stand him in good stead, as will his ability to cover 15. RWC squads are tight so established pairings and flexibility count for a lot when coaches select them.

Best of the rest
A shout-out to the other options Wales have: Bath’s Rhys Priestland, the experienced hand. Ospreys’ Sam Davies, the one-time boy wonder. Blues’ Jarrod Evans, arguably the current boy wonder. This world cup will probably come too soon for Dan Jones at Scarlets although he has picked up some valuable big game experience in Europe. Lastly, there is Gloucester’s Owen Williams, the forgotten man.

Of those, Priestland seems most likely to be first choice RWC emergency call-up, given his 50 caps. But an injury sooner than that could see Evans or Davies get the chance to play their way into the squad.

I don’t think there’s a clear frontrunner right now. Anscombe probably deserves to keep the jersey for the 6 Nations – and that would be in keeping with both of Gatland’s stated ambitions: to give players more experience and expand Wales’ attacking game.

But Biggar is a fiercely competitive player and it wouldn’t be wise to write him off. Right now, Patchell seems most likely to be a like-for-like back-up to Anscombe; a player who can step in at short notice and keep the team running in the same way. All three could very likely make the RWC squad, assuming they’re all fit.

It’s been a while since Wales had such riches to choose from at fly-half and, although this might not quite be the heady days of the 70s, it certainly feels like fans should sit back and enjoy the ride.

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