After two years, three surgeries, and 812 days between Wales Test matches the long, arduous journey ends, and another begins for Gareth Anscombe on
After two years, three surgeries, and 812 days between Wales Test matches the long, arduous journey ends, and another begins for Gareth Anscombe on Saturday.
A few minutes before 5.15pm he will walk out in front of 74,000 people at the Principality Stadium as Wales’ No 10 – and there will not be a person among those present with anything other than good wishes for him.
Amid the emotion, Anscombe will win his 28th cap against the land of his father, New Zealand, for the land of his mother, Wales.
But the backdrop behind it will be the incredible battle he has waged to come back after a shocking, harrowing and unique knee injury that has taken every ounce of him to overcome.
Here Sportsmail tracks Anscombe’s remarkable revival talking to those who have been alongside him through the past 26 months.
Gareth Anscombe underwent three operations after suffering a horror injury in 2019
AUGUST 2019 – Anscombe suffers his knee injury in a World Cup warm-up match against England at Twickenham.
OCTOBER 2019 – It becomes clear the surgery has not been a success, so Anscombe has a second procedure to help solve the ongoing problem.
MARCH 2020 – COVID strikes, delaying a third procedure.
JULY 2020 – He undergoes a third ‘radical’ procedure to change the bio-mechanics of his right leg.
OCTOBER 2020 – It is confirmed Anscombe will miss another whole season after his progress had ‘plateaued’.
JANUARY 2021 – He jogs for the first time since his injury – 17 months later.
MAY 2021 – Finally allowed to kick goals in training, approaching two years out.
SEPTEMBER 2021 – Plays his first match in 761 days, for the Ospreys against Northampton Saints in a pre-season friendly.
OCTOBER 2021 – Makes his competitive debut for Ospreys, two years after he joined the club. Later he is picked again for Wales by Wayne Pivac.
TODAY – Starts his first Test in 812 days, against New Zealand at the Principality Stadium.
THE INJURY – AUGUST 2019
IT was just a side-step off his right foot. No crunching tackle, no forceful fate. Anscombe caught a high kick against England in a World Cup warm-up game on August 11, 2019 and raced across the Twickenham turf.
When attempting to beat full-back Elliot Daly 20 minutes in he felt a pop. After a quick check, he carried on, converted Gareth Davies’ try and by the half-hour mark tried a chip-and-chase. He never made the ball.
Anscombe was not to know it at the time, coming off, but not only was he to miss the World Cup, but the next 28 Test matches, two full seasons and years of his career. He was facing the greatest challenge of his life.
Initial scans revealed a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in his right leg, and a lateral tear to his meniscus too. His surgery cleaned that up and grafted a piece of his hamstring to create a new ACL. No date for his return was given.
REHABILITATION ONE – AUGUST 2019-JULY 2020
QUITE soon it became clear that operation had not worked. The usual nine-month recovery process from these injuries was discarded.
‘It wasn’t a straightforward post-op recovery in the early stages,’ explains Chris Towers, the Medical Performance Manager at Ospreys, the club Anscombe joined from Cardiff that 2019 autumn.
‘We had some imaging done which confirmed the complications we were dealing with and were destined to manage.
‘That culminated in a second keyhole operation in December 2019, after the original surgery, which slowed down his recovery massively.’
His wife Milica (above) has been a rock and daughter Teifi has been a happy distraction
WALES WITH ANSCOMBE
P 27 W 19 L8 W% 70
Anscombe’s points: 75 (15c, 15p)
Honours: 2019 Six Nations Grand Slam
SINCE ANSCOMBE’S INJURY
P28 W14 L13 D1 W% 50
Honours: 2021 Six Nations
While Anscombe was becoming used to navigating Cardiff’s supermarkets on a mobility scooter, his London-based knee specialist Andy Williams – who has fixed the knees of all sorts of sportspeople from Virgil Van Djik to Jonny May – started global consultation.
He sounded out experts from the NBA, NFL, rugby league in Australia and union in South Africa to find a solution to this trickiest of problems. Anscombe’s knee was not settling.
‘We encountered difficulties again in the spring of 2020,’ explains Towers.
‘It was clear we weren’t going to have a straight-forward rehab, and get him back without something else being done.’
The procedure required was ‘radical’. Bio-mechanical alterations to his right leg were necessary, which required breaking his femur, and realigning his knee with the help of a bone-graft.
But then the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020. Anscombe’s third operation was delayed.
‘That was the most challenging time in the process,’ says Towers.
With no face-to-face consultations, or hands-on physiotherapy work permitted, Anscombe would check in daily with Ospreys strength and conditioning coach Liam Thomas via FaceTime.
The fly-half filmed the small elements of training he could do – like passing while sitting on a Swiss ball – so sessions could be reviewed and adapted.
Anscombe played his first match in 761 days for the Ospreys in September this year
‘It was a challenge at a critical time,’ says Towers.
‘He didn’t have the access to the practitioners he needed, let alone hospital for routine imaging, or surgeries.’
To stave off muscle wastage Anscombe would strap a device to his leg that would send electronic pulses through it. During the two-month wait for his third operation came his toughest times.
‘There was obviously a massive dip when he knew he was starting the whole process again,’ Toby Booth, the Ospreys head coach who joined in 2020, says.
‘There are some very dark times, questions of self-belief, and self-doubt is just around the corner – “am I ever going to?” We had to make sure we kept that as far away as possible.’
With his mental health just as important as his physical, Anscombe would use Steve Mellalieu, Ospreys’ psychologist, as a sounding board.
‘Ensuring that Gareth was well supported both by allowing variation within the programme to try and maintain positive mindset was huge,’ adds Simon Church – the club’s Head of Physical Performance.
Towers adds: ‘It’s testament to his mental fortitude and strength of character. He’s an outstanding competitor – that’s what’s got him through.’
Finally, in July 2020, Anscombe went under the knife again.
REHABILITATION TWO – JULY 2020-APRIL 2021
WITH that procedure successful, he was back to square one.
Publicly it was October 2020 when club and country revealed he would miss a second year – but privately they knew from that July.
‘He had two months of very restricted load-bearing,’ says Towers.
‘We knew it would be a slow process.’
Gareth Anscombe is in line to start in his first international for more than two years
A happy distraction came in September 2020 with the birth of Anscombe’s first child, a daughter, Teifi – his wife Milica a rock of support throughout.
By that December it was confirmed his third operation had held. Suddenly there was light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
This January Anscombe started jogging for the first time in 17 months. He built his knee strength with box-jumping, balancing and power exercises, started lifting small weights, sitting down between repetitions, slowly assembling his body back together.
Booth started to involve him in previews, reviews and white-board sessions so he felt involved.
‘You’ve got to try and celebrate every little win,’ Ospreys’ boss explains.
‘We integrate injured players into the programme as much as we can, to get over that psychological barrier, so to speak. It’s very deliberate.
‘You get some buoyancy in their mood which gives them the energy and enthusiasm to keep their mind on moving forward.
‘In the second half of the 2020-21 season we integrated Gareth more into meetings. At the very end of the season last Spring we got him into on-field rugby sessions, not just rehab, which made a big difference, being out there doing the things he loves.’
THE COMEBACK — MAY 2021-PRESENT
NOW running, side-stepping and, from May, goal-kicking, Anscombe ticked off goals gradually.
Josh Robinson, Ospreys’ Senior Physical Performance Coach, handed him a bespoke programme of muscle-priming ‘pre-hab’ and knee strengthening exercises.
Anscombe worked on his speed and power too, all the while plotting his return date.
The 30-year-old suffered an horrendous knee injury in August 2019 against England
‘He always focused on the best case, most positive outcome. He didn’t contemplate anything different to that,’ says Towers.
A date was set. Friday September 10, 2021. Northampton Saints away in a pre-season friendly.
Anscombe and Booth even concocted a media strategy around his return; a couple of warm-up appearances before to generate interest, but always playing it down.
‘We were very careful about even naming him in the team, as we didn’t want to bring additional pressure,’ explains Booth.
‘Every little bit had to be considered.’
Before it Booth and Anscombe spoke of ‘pressure being a privilege’ – a feeling the player had not felt for so long.
Off before half-time, as planned, after a couple of conversions kicked and Anscombe was away.
Next 70 minutes against the Dragons, then 67 versus Cardiff – kicking six goals from six he won man of the match, which even friends in New Zealand noticed.
‘To do that after two years out shows how classy he is,’ noted former Waikato Chiefs team-mate, All Black Brodie Retallick.
One more hour in Swansea against the Sharks, and Anscombe was in the autumn Wales squad.
‘Gareth has shown an unbelievable level of drive, professionalism and dedication,’ says Church, ahead of Anscombe’s dream return to Test rugby against New Zealand.
He will not play all four autumn Tests; that has been agreed between club and country. He still cannot train at full intensity on consecutive days but is back playing international rugby, and inspiring his Welsh team.
‘He’s still got the fight and desire and if anything, it’s probably more so now,’ says captain Alun Wyn Jones.
‘Those characteristics which you see in a player who has been through so much can spawn a lot of determination from those around him.’
Towers adds: ‘He’s in a really good place physically and can only get better from here.’
And Booth concludes: ‘It will be a hugely emotional day, playing the country of his birth. We can only hope he plays to his very best and enjoys it – he’s got to enjoy it as the journey he’s been on he’s got every right to enjoy it.’