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Gareth Anscombe

Gareth Anscombe during training

Anscombe hoping for change of fortunes

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There was no more relieved person that Gareth Anscombe to receive his World Cup cap in Verseilles on Sunday.

Four years ago the former New Zealand U20 world champion was all set to head to the World Cup in Japan as the top choice outside half for Wales. Then injury struck.

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He had just emerged from a Grand Slam campaign in which he’d become a national hero for scoring 20 points in the decisive 24-7 win over Ireland in Cardiff to clinch the clean sweep.
Having started four of the five games ahead of Dan Biggar, he looked set to remain in situ at No 10 for a tournament at which Wales eventually finished fourth. Instead, he began a two-year long rehab on his knee.

A catastrophic knee injury in the warm-up game at Twickenham against England required more than one surgery. It took him two years to get back into playing, yet he quickly made up for lost time by returning to the Welsh side a month later.

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Now he is heading to France hoping his luck has finally turned.

“In 2015, I came in late after breaking my ankle and it didn’t feel as if I was quite part of things.  I’ve said it before, to miss the 2019 World Cup with an injury just beforehand was gut-wrenching,” wrote Anscombe in his column in the SportIn Wales magazine.

“It’s a seriously intense experience and it’s probably just as well that it’s only every four years because it’s so demanding in every way, physically and mentally.  There have been challenges and holes in the road on this journey, too, but that’s always the way.

“There are always injuries suffered in training, and in the preparation matches, and I suffered one myself. I injured my right thumb near the end of the training camp in Turkey, which meant I was soon able to run and keep up my conditioning work, but I just wasn’t able to catch and pass a rugby ball.

“That was obviously hugely frustrating, but you can’t stop training for tournaments because of the risk of injuries. You also need games in order to get match-hardened and generate self-belief as a team, so injuries are part and parcel of being a rugby player.

“It was tough to take, though, when you’ve come back from much bigger, more serious injuries and then a silly little thing like a thumb gets in your way.”

One of three outside halves included in Warren Gatland’s squad, the fact he didn’t feature in any of the three warm-up games is likely to put him down the pecking order, with the second-round match against Portugal perhaps his chance to shine.

Gareth Anscombe

Gareth Anscombe the welcome ceremony at the City Hall of Versailles

Given Gatland will be looking to keep the Fijians, everyone’s favourites to become the surprise package at the tournament following their recent wins over Japan and England, pegged back with a tight kicking and territorial game, it seems tailor made for Biggar.

The Toulon player has announced he will be retiring internationally at the end of the World Cup and is looking to go out on a high. Gatland’s other option is the coming man from the Scarlets, Sam Costelow.

Anscombe is heading to Japan after his World Cup commitments are over, forging a new club carer at Suntory Sungoliaths after leaving the Ospreys.

“I’m convinced Wales can do something pretty special, that this squad is capable of a campaign to remember. As far as the bookies and the pundits are concerned, we are flying in under the radar and that suits us just fine,” added Anscombe.

“I have to admit that back  in November I wasn’t too convinced we were on schedule to pull up any trees. The coaches were being changed, the regions were all in a total mess, and there were players literally not knowing if they were going to be playing the next weekend because of the contractual situation.

“That was bound to take its toll and it clearly had an effect on players in this squad. We then had new coaches and although it was a difficult tournament, I always felt the team would improve the longer we spent together.

“We have seen that so many times before under Warren (who returned at the start of the year). Part of the issue is that players coming in from regional rugby to the national squad are not quite at the level they need to be.

“Guys need to be hitting the ground running when they come in. Instead, it takes them a week or two to get back up to the standards of Test rugby.

“But you can now see a group that’s starting to understand a little bit more about what we’re trying to do and accomplish. There’s still tons that we can work on and improve, but there the group is getting a real understanding of what the coaches want and now we are just trying to add little adjustments to our game.

“The win over England just added a nice feeling that we were on the right path and a fair way down it. It reinforced my view that if we can keep clear of too many injuries, then on any given day, this Wales team is capable of beating any side in the world.

“Are we as strong as the Wales squad of four years ago that reached the semi-final in Japan? Probably not.

“But this squad has massive potential, with a whole load of young players who can grow in confidence and really assert themselves over the next few weeks.”

Gareth Anscombe

Gareth Anscombe feels the burn in a bike session

The game against the Fijians in Bordeaux is bound to evoke memories of the great day for the south sea islanders in Nantes in 2007, when their 38-34 triumph took them through to the quarter-finals and sent Wales packing.

Head coach Gareth Jenkins lost his job after his side’s ignominious World Cup exit at the pool stage and the players flew back into Cardiff Wales Airport on the same day a host of Welsh fans were heading to Marseille hoing to watch them in the last eight.

“We have a very difficult opening game against an improving Fiji and the focus has to be on winning that very tough game, before we move on,” said Anscombe.

“I think there are maybe nine teams who can win this World Cup – France, New Zealand, South Africa, Ireland, England, Australia and ourselves. Argentina and Scotland, too. That’s never really been the case before. It’s never been this wide open.

“All of those teams are capable of beating the others in a one-off, so I think from a fans’ point of view this could be just an incredible World Cup.

“Warren Gatland is an old school coach, but he knows how to get the best out of players, old and young. He can challenge you, even when he doesn’t do it directly and that’s a great skill.

The boys have certainly been challenged, pushed and driven, and they have responded. We are ready for this World Cup – ready to reward the fans for their amazing support, ready to make our families proud after all the sacrifices, and ready to be successful at the biggest rugby tournament of them all.”

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