There is possibly no rugby-playing nation that takes the fly-half position as seriously as Wales. Martyn Williams was once asked why his country produced so many ball-playing opensides and he joked that they all grew up wanting to play at 10 before they got moved over.
It’s a joke with more than a ring of truth to it – to emulate Barry John, Phil Bennett and Jonathan “Jiffy” Davies is what most young Welsh rugby players grow up dreaming of.
For the Welsh rugby-watching public, there is no debate to be had between a “steady hand on the tiller” and the so-called maverick option.
A fly-half without a running game doesn’t count. If you can’t run, jink and embarrass even the savviest defenders with a change of pace or a breathtaking swerve, then you’re not a true No10. Kicking is an extra.
Dan Biggar almost single-handedly kept Wales in the last World Cup with his fearlessness, consistency and near-perfect kicking from the tee. And yet he has spoken repeatedly about the criticism he has received for not playing “the Welsh way”, eventually leaving for Northampton Saints to play out of the spotlight of his home country.
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Gareth Anscombe, meanwhile, has the triple threat that Wales fans like to see in their fly-half – an ability to run, pass and kick to tear defences apart.
While his upbringing in New Zealand aroused some suspicion from fans when he first arrived in Cardiff, where his mother is from, his performances over the past 14 months for club and country saw him win fans over and take the Welsh No10 jersey as his own.
His ACL injury last Sunday, though, is a huge blow to Welsh hopes in this World Cup, not least because coach Warren Gatland has been talking about upping their attacking threat, which Anscombe would have been central to. What now?
Get ready for the Biggarena?
Of course, Biggar is not a bad back-up to have when your first-choice fly-half is ruled out, as even the biggest John fan would acknowledge. He has far more attacking ability than he has shown for Wales – on the Lions tour in 2017 and with Saints last season, he played much flatter, passing more and used his kicking game differently to release his backs.
But the dynamic that Wales have settled on recently, with Biggar coming off the bench to see games out, seems to work for them. For this Saturday’s second warm-up, Biggar has been promoted to start but, going forward, will Gatland try a more like-for-like replacement for Anscombe, saving Biggar’s experience and nerve for introduction late on in games?
During the Six Nations, Wales didn’t employ Anscombe’s running game much, preferring to keep him back to direct the phase work of the forwards while he waited for the final pass to score, whether off of his hands or his foot.
While that approach was crucial to Wales’ success, it seems highly likely, given his attacking gifts, that he would be given more freedom during the warm-ups and pool games.
The breakthrough option
If that is the case, Jarrod Evans or Rhys Patchell would seem better choices to replace Anscombe, as Biggar does not have much of a running game. Evans, who has been chosen for a bench spot this weekend ahead of Patchell, may have non-Welsh fans checking Google.
He has been in the Wales set-up since the 2018 autumn internationals, although he has so far acquired barely a minute of game-time. However, he has been generating excitement for some time now, partly because his running game perfectly fits the idea of an ideal Welsh fly-half. His kick passing is a handy weapon and his long-range kicking is improving all the time.
Evans does not lack for confidence and reportedly joked when he first entered camp that “it was about time he was here considering he had been playing in front of Gareth Anscombe for the last two years”.
When he did start ahead of Anscombe for Cardiff Blues, the latter mostly played alongside him at full-back, giving Evans a second play-maker option and reducing his kicking duties.
Liam Williams, for all his many qualities, does not offer such assistance and Leigh Halfpenny – still one of the best kickers in the world – does not appear to be in the first choice XV. Hadleigh Parkes is a very competent inside centre but he is in no way a true play-maker. There would be no safety blanket in the Wales XV.
Anscombe’s injury makes it far more likely that Evans will travel to Japan but will he be trusted to start the big games?
It’s a huge ask for the 23-year-old, although this is an area where Gatland has form. In 2011, he took Rhys Priestland to the World Cup on the back of four minutes in the Six Nations and three warm-up games. He then started him at No10 against reigning champions South Africa. Would he take such a risk again?
Patchell, the forgotten man?
The other option in camp – Patchell – excelled during the Argentina tour last summer and it seemed like he would be the future fly-half before concussion problems sidelined him and Anscombe took his chance.
Like Anscombe, Patchell is a triple-threat player who is extremely comfortable in attack and also a very competent full-back. He has a huge range with his boot and, crucially, is familiar with most of the Welsh backline, with whom he plays at Scarlets.
He should be able to step into the team fairly comfortably, as he did to such devastating effect against Scotland in the opening round of the 2018 Six Nations.
However, his big-game mentality is a concern. He struggled when England put him under pressure in the next game of that Six Nations. Outgoing Scarlets’ coach (also known as incoming Wales’ coach) Wayne Pivac frequently chose Parkes, not a natural No10, to close out big games for the regional side.
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Gareth Anscombe becomes the first casualty of the warm-up games. A huge blow for Wales that will likely see Dan Biggar thrust back into the starting role. #ENGvWAL #walesrugby #welshrugby #wru #englandrugby #rwc #rugbyworldcup #rwcjapan2019 #rugby #rugbygram
Wales have two games left after this weekend, home and away to Ireland. Those are unusually tough by warm-up standards but will it be enough for Gatland to trust Patchell against Australia and Fiji?
Wales’ remaining fly-half options are not so promising. Priestland is no longer eligible, having signed a new contract at Bath with fewer than 60 caps. Sam Davies, about to start the season with Dragons, has been off Gatland’s radar for a while now despite looking like the coming man a few years ago.
Gloucester’s Owen Williams remains eligible but has also seemingly been forgotten. And although Gavin Henson has repeatedly stated his ambition to play in this World Cup, it seems vanishingly unlikely that Gatland will summon him.
That leaves Biggar, Evans and Patchell. Gatland has indicated that all three will get game time before the final squad is announced. Biggar has the odds stacked in his favour currently but Gatland, who enjoys a wild card perhaps more than he is given credit for, might decide to take a risk on Evans now that his regional team-mate is no longer available.
WATCH: Wales coach Warren Gatland talks to the media ahead of Saturday’s World Cup warm-up match against England in Cardiff
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