Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Punted by Blues, paying dividends at Chiefs

New Chiefs fullback Gareth Anscombe has blossomed after being shown the door in Auckland. Photo / Getty Images
New Chiefs fullback Gareth Anscombe has blossomed after being shown the door in Auckland. Photo / Getty Images

Rejected Aucklanders who shine elsewhere - hardly a select club. But Gareth Anscombe is more than happy he's joined.

The 21-year-old has been unrecognisable from the tentative, conservative, timid player of this time last year. Playing in the unfamiliar role of fullback for the defending champions, he has shown a range of skills no one fully appreciated he possessed. Getting out of Auckland - being sacked by the Blues - has been the making of Anscombe.

The biggest surprise has been his speed, his ability to beat defenders, take them on the outside and create holes by easing down on the accelerator. That deadly pace - seen with his three tries against the Rebels on Friday - wasn't evident when he was with the Blues. He played the role of PC Plod with the Blues, standing back from the traffic and shuffling about uneasily.

This season, he's played with his head up, been creative, lively and aware - one of the best counter-attackers in the competition. He catches high balls and his goal-kicking is metronomic.

Is he really the same bloke? The transformation has been stunning, but then, maybe, no one should be overly surprised.

Anscombe is by no means the first player to be rejected by the Blues only to blossom elsewhere. Other franchises have seen the odd player they moved on subsequently flicker into life at their new home. The Blues have turned it into a phenomenon.

Their list is long and regretful, starting with Ron Cribb, who became an All Black after he shifted to the Crusaders. Rico Gear, capped while at the Blues, developed into a seriously good performer after he too moved to Christchurch. Mose Tuiali'i can join that crew, while Sione Lauaki, while sporadic, at least reached his potential after he was moved on to the Chiefs. Nick Evans, unwanted by the Blues, became a top quality operator at the Highlanders, as did Craig Newby. Mike Harris was overlooked only to become a Wallaby barely 12 months later and now Anscombe has become the latest to transform after the hurt of rejection.

Described by former Blues coach Pat Lam as the future of the franchise in February last year, Anscombe was punted by September. Some of his failings were his own fault; some were not - the Blues didn't back him with regular selection or make it entirely clear what they expected. He wasn't even one year into his three-year deal and he was put on the market - told there had been a massive rethink and his skill set wasn't what the Blues wanted.

New coach John Kirwan hadn't seen a player equipped to run his game plan. So Anscombe was de-listed and initial speculation was that he would be passed over by other franchises. The Welsh, for whom he is qualified through his mother, were touted as possible buyers, as were Ulster, where Anscombe's father Mark is coach.

But it was the champion Chiefs who pounced, spotting something worth salvaging; they saw Anscombe as handy cover for Aaron Cruden.

Ten weeks into the season and the plot has taken an unexpected twist: Anscombe has played all but 25 minutes for the Chiefs ... at fullback. He is the competition's leading points scorer and, on several occasions, has been the best performer in the backline.

"I suppose it has been a whirlwind six months," he says. "But I feel pretty settled. I love the crowd, I love the region and I love the environment. I didn't think I would ever be able to say that. I am loving being in the starting side and getting the chance to see Crudes [Cruden] operating at No 10."

The Chiefs can't take all the credit. Anscombe admits that rejection inspired him to exact his revenge, to prove everyone in Auckland wrong. Success tastes sweet - success after being told it would never happen, tastes even sweeter.

"I think it was a hell of a season last year," says Anscombe. "It was my first and I was a 20-year-old trying to guide the team. We didn't quite click, unfortunately.

"The Auckland media did jump on our backs. There is always a bit of motivation [to prove people wrong] but I'm past that now. What happened, happened and I have grown. I think I have a lot to offer New Zealand rugby and I feel a little more comfortable in my second year. I just hope to continue to improve."

Technically, Anscombe is still a Blues contracted player and the big question to be answered, probably after June, is whether they want him back. The even bigger question is: will he want to go back?

- Herald on Sunday

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