Old All Black friends show no mercy on Gareth Anscombe’s Wales return

Have the old songs ever sounded so sweet or been sung so loud? After 18 months of Test matches played in front of piped-in crowds, they finally had a full house at the Principality, almost 80,000 in, and 80 minutes against the All Blacks ahead.

In those first few moments, in the silence that fell for the haka and the first swell of Cwm Rhondda that followed, all the worries, whys, and wherefores about Wales’s missing players, the wrangle between clubs and countries, and what it all means about the state of the international game, slipped out of mind. For the minute, at least, none of it seemed to matter so much.

Because there was a game on, rugby the way it is meant to be played, with drinking, roaring, singing, cheering, and sloshing, a chance to sling your arm around the back of whoever’s standing next to you and shout at the referee.

According to reports they had struggled to shift the tickets, as if people had been put off by the thought of the packed trains into the city, and Covid passport checks on the gates, and, perhaps, the prospect of watching Wales get beaten by a team who have now won every game the sides have played for the last 68 years. Well, by kick-off no one gave a much of a damn about any of that.

As Jon Davies said afterwards: “When it’s taken away from you, you appreciate it even more.” Ask Gareth Anscombe. It has been well over two years since he last played for Wales. If the anthems sounded good to you, imagine how they must have felt for him.

Time was, of course, when he would have dreamed about being on the other team. Anscombe was born and raised in New Zealand, and was the starting fly-half in the All Black Under-20s that mauled Wales 92-0 on their way to winning the Junior World Cup in 2011. TJ Perenera was his partner at scrum-half in that tournament, Beauden Barrett, who has taken the spot in the senior team Anscombe wanted, was behind them at full-back.

One of the reasons Anscombe moved to Wales (the land of his mother) in 2014, was because he was stuck behind Barrett (as well as Aaron Cruden and Dan Carter) in New Zealand’s pecking order. The move paid off. It was all coming together for him and then, in a World Cup warm-up match against England in 2019, he ruptured an anterior cruciate ligament, and suffered a lateral tear to his meniscus. Normally they would figure nine months out for such an injury. For Anscombe, recovery has taken more than twice that long.

Anscombe needed three rounds of surgery, the last a radical procedure that required breaking his femur and a bone graft. For a lot of it, he was on his own, cut off from specialist support during the pandemic, stuck at home while the waves came and went. It went on so long he and his wife have raised a one-year-old daughter while he was recovering.

Anscombe finally got back on the pitch in September, although he’s only played piecemeal since, a half against Northampton, 70 minutes against the Dragons, 70 minutes against the Blues, an hour against the Sharks, and now here he was, making his very first start against his old team.

You guess he had waited for this moment as keenly as anyone. Truthfully, it may have come too soon. The All Blacks gave him all of three minutes’ grace. Then Barrett picked off a short, flat pass Anscombe threw in a hurry during a helter-skelter passage of play in his own half. It gave Barrett a clean sprint in for the opening try.

In short order, the game slipped away. Wales lost Alun Wyn Jones, and New Zealand went 15 points up. Anscombe kicked two penalties, but those six points were precious little to work with. Anscombe made it through 47 minutes before Wayne Pivac replaced him with Rhys Priestland. Wales were markedly better afterwards.

Of course both paled next to Barrett, who was named the man of the match on the occasion of his 100th cap and finished things off with a second try moments after they had announced the award on the public address system.

He is under some pressure for his place in the starting team himself, and only got back in because Richie Mo’unga took a spell of paternity leave. But he is still a richly gifted player, as he showed everyone all over again. Watching him go about his work, Anscombe may have reflected that maybe he made the right choice when he switched all those years ago, even if it did mean he ended up on the losing team. Barrett is a different class.

At the end 80,000 fans headed out into the night, ready for another drink, or three, maybe a bite to eat, and a regretful word or two about what Wales should have done differently. It finished up an ugly defeat, but the disappointment was leavened with some happiness that Test rugby was back. As for the win, well, there’s always next time.