Gareth Anscombe: I think people in leadership positions need to have a good hard look at where the game is going in Wales

Gareth Anscombe has his sights set on the World Cup later this year

This weekend at Twickenham, Gareth Anscombe is set to start at full-back for the Barbarians against a World XV led by Steve Hansen.

The Welshman has recently returned from a shoulder injury he suffered in the 2022 Autumn Internationals - which kept him out of this year’s Six Nations - but now he is looking to get some minutes under his belt ahead of the World Cup in September.

Anscombe was a pivotal member of Wales’ 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam-winning campaign but he was dealt a cruel blow in a World Cup warm-up game later that summer against England, rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament which denied him a chance of representing his country in Japan.

But the Osprey is now back and has set his sights on the upcoming campaign in France.

He told TRU: “2019 was devastating. There’s no hiding behind that. That one really hurt. It really felt like a World Cup that we were really geared up for and I was ticking along quite nicely for it as well. Of course, I want to play for Wales, I want to play at the World Cup and I want to be doing it in the number ten jersey.

"Clearly after the Six Nations, we’ve got some work to do to improve.”

As Anscombe alludes to, Wales had a Six Nations campaign to forget. Finishing fifth in the standings and collecting one victory was just the tip of the iceberg in a turbulent year for Welsh Rugby and last week, the nation was left stunned as the two titanic figures of Alun Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric called time on their international careers.

After announcing their retirement, Anscombe was full of praise for his Welsh and Ospreys teammates.

"They’re going to be huge losses to Welsh Rugby,” he said. “They’re both unbelievable servants of the game so there will obviously be a bit of a changing of the guard in the squad but it’s just about finding a mix that works for us.

“It was a big shock, particularly Tips. It was very out of the blue and caught a few by surprise for sure. To lose 250 caps, any team is going to feel that. Alun Wyn’s record is crazy. It’s hard to believe especially because he plays in such a tough position at second row. We played a game of touch in training today [with the Barbarians] and he’s still running around like a madman!”

“You could speak about them both all day long but they’ll be huge losses. They’ve left the jersey in a better place and created a lasting legacy.”

Welsh Rugby has been faced with a range of challenges in the last six months, with threats of players taking strike action, contractual problems and allegations of bullying and misogyny, and Anscombe says that the game in Wales is in a “mess.”

“I think in Wales, there are things that we’ve done consistently over the years that keep hurting the game and specifically the players," he added. "The players have been let down numerous times and this whole season, it’s been a mess. I do worry for the regions next season and how they are supposed to compete with smaller squads and the lack of money. Some things for me just aren’t making sense.

"I think people in leadership positions need to have a good hard look at where the game is going in Wales and we certainly need to make changes and I think that’s evident. From a player’s point of view, I just feel like we’ve been messed around and let down and the players are the first to get their back broken all the time.”

On a more positive note, the Ospreys number 10 looked to be back to his mercurial best last Autumn against Australia, successfully running the show at fly-half in a Welsh attack that scored four tries in 50 minutes.

But injury struck again for Anscombe which had sidelined him until March of this year. He says the initial prognosis was six months but thankfully, he recovered ahead of schedule.

He said “I flew back. Initially, it was going to be nearly six months, but I came through really well and it feels really good and totally normal. I feel like my best rugby is still ahead of me and I’ve got a lot to give.

"I’m still determined to make that happen in a red jersey. I feel like I play my best when I play often and when you’re playing fly-half, you want to be on the front line making decisions and doing it often."

It's clear Anscombe is delighted to be back doing what he does best but he doesn't forget how tough those periods were when he was recovering from injury.

Aside from the setback with his shoulder, the knee injury he suffered against England in the lead up to the 2019 World Cup saw him miss more than two years of rugby.

Last month, Anscombe’s Ospreys teammate Harri Morgan revealed that he would be stepping away from rugby in order to prioritise his mental health.

He was experiencing long-term injury, stress and anxiety that led him to attempt to take his own life and Anscombe says that Morgan’s experience is an indication of how tough professional sport can be.

He said: “I’ve spent a lot of time with Harri and clearly what he went through in the last six months was really sad. You hate to see people that you know go through challenges like that. I think it highlights how tough the game can be. I know myself, I’ve had plenty of dark days when you’re injured that do drag you down.

"It is sad to see him step away from the game but for where he is now, it’s the right thing. He’s getting stuck into his PT business and that’s going really well. I’m really pleased for him and he’s come out the other side.”

Back to Sunday then, and Anscombe will be starting at full-back against a World XV side with a backline stacked with quality. Ngani Laumape and Semi Radradra are in the centres, with the formidable Charles Piutau taking the 15 jersey.

The Osprey knows what he is up against this weekend: "I don’t think they can have the ball can they?! You won’t see a more powerful backline. Across the backline, it’s just a bunch of freaks!

"We’ve got some firepower ourselves so if we don’t front up physically then we could be in for a tough day."