Wales revel in drop-goal kings
Tokyo (AFP) –
There was a collective groan in Wales when star fly-half Gareth Anscombe limped out of a warm-up game in the lead-in to the Rugby World Cup.
The 28-year-old New Zealand-born playmaker, man of the match when Wales overwhelmed Ireland 25-7 in March to win their third Six Nations Grand Slam under Warren Gatland, looked to have won the debate over who would wear the No 10 shirt in Japan.
But that knee injury against England saw the experienced Dan Biggar promoted, with Rhys Patchell coming in as his understudy.
And both players stepped up a notch in Wales' thrilling 29-25 victory over Australia on Sunday.
Biggar got the scoreboard rolling after just 30 seconds with a well-taken drop-goal, a feat mirrored in the second period by Patchell, who went on to kick 14 points in the win which sets Wales up as potential Pool D toppers, with games against Fiji and Uruguay to come.
"Never in doubt," Anscombe tweeted after the match, alongside emojis of flexed biceps, a smiley face and the Welsh flag.
Gatland was full of praise for Anscombe's replacements, saying Biggar came off after failing a head injury assessment.
"He was disappointed to come off but I thought it was brilliant the way he encouraged Rhys," the Kiwi coach said.
Gatland said Patchell had upped his defensive game, often criticised in the past, and would take confidence from closing down a "big match".
"We changed a few things in the way he defends," he said. "I thought his line speed was excellent and he made a few big tackles for us.
"He controlled the game pretty well. There are some things we want him to continue to work on in terms of bossing it out there a little bit more."
- 'Take those points' -
Patchell acknowledged that the two drop-goals he and Biggar kicked were ultimately the difference between the two very even sides, Wales having led 23-8 at the break before Australia launched a fierce comeback.
"When you get to a World Cup, everybody thinks tries win a World Cup," Patchell said.
"But what wins World Cups is goal kicking and being able to take those points."
While the All Blacks ran away with the 2015 final against the Wallabies, the three previous World Cup finals in 2003, 2007 and 2011 all came down to slotting the ball between the posts.
In 2003, a famous drop-goal in extra time by Jonny Wilkinson, off his wrong foot, ensured an England victory over Australia.
"I never fail to speak in praise of dropped goals because they invariably play a role in winning big rugby matches," Clive Woodward, the England coach that day, wrote in the Daily Mail newspaper.
"The six points that Dan Biggar and then Rhys Patchell garnered were the difference between Wales winning and losing."
Gatland said dropping goals were a way of ensuring a psychological advantage by getting points on the board in games increasingly dominated by defences that are tough to break down.
"It was just about winning," he said. "It wasn't about the knockout stages, we just wanted to win the match and keep the scoreboard ticking over.
"The way the game is now with defences, from 15 to 20 metres out it's hard to break teams down.
"Dan just took the opportunity to get three points and keep the scoreboard ticking over as Rhys did as well."
Patchell added: "We were aware that when we were down in Australia's half we wanted to come away with points."
When asked whether he and Biggar worked on drop-goals in training, Patchell retorted: "Yes! You don?t get better with your hands in your pockets!"
© 2019 AFP