Leigh Halfpenny going, Ian Evans gone… one way or another, Welsh rugby was heartily relieved to see the back of yesterday. A little over a week before the Six Nations champions launch their bid for an unprecedented third successive title, they were hit with a double whammy on the personnel front that plunged them into a dark pit of depression. If they finish this year’s tournament in the same way they ended the 2013 version, it will be a minor miracle.
Halfpenny, the 25-year-old full-back who has risen to the very pinnacle of the sport in recent seasons, had been linked with a move from impecunious Cardiff Blues to mega-wealthy Toulon since well before Christmas, but when the Welsh region finally bowed to the inevitable, they could hardly have sounded more frustrated.
“Retaining Leigh has been one of our highest priorities and we have done all in our power to facilitate it,” said Richard Holland, the Blues chief executive. “His outstanding performances have made him one of the most prized players in world rugby and we put our very best offer on the table, but he has been the target of a major European club with significant resources. We cannot compete at this moment in time.”
Holland did not identify Toulon, whose ruthless ambition has driven them to throw money at players as high-profile as Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana, Matt Giteau and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, luring them to the Côte d’Azur from all points of the compass. However, everyone knew the reigning Heineken Cup champions were on Halfpenny’s trail and shortly after the Blues went public with their decision to give up the ghost, the French club confirmed that they had landed their man on a two-year deal, complete with a third-year option.
As if this were not soul-destroying enough, it then emerged that Evans, the Ospreys lock who toured Australia with the Lions last summer, had copped a 12-week ban for stamping on the Leinster second-rower Mike McCarthy during a Heineken Cup game last weekend. He is free to appeal, but as things stand he will not play again until late April, while the Six Nations will come to an end on 15 March.
As the Welsh hierarchy expected the disciplinary class to throw the book at Evans – he did, after all, connect with McCarthy’s head, leaving him with a serious facial wound – it was the Halfpenny development that really hurt. It demonstrated all too clearly the futility of the governing body’s attempt to stem the flow of talent from its shores by offering central contracts to a small handful of elite players.
Halfpenny is as elite as they come and he has skedaddled, joining the likes of George North, Jamie Roberts, Mike Phillips and Dan Lydiate, who are already in exile, and the highly rated centre Jonathan Davies, who will join them soon enough.
By way of rubbing salt in a gaping wound, the Irish struck another blow for home sweet home by announcing that Jamie Heaslip, the Leinster and Lions No 8, had rejected a lucrative contract in France and signed a new deal to remain in Dublin. Sean O’Brien, his back-row colleague for both province and country, did something similar a few days ago, as did the long-serving lock Paul O’Connell and a second man of Munster, the wing Keith Earls. Not to mention another Lions tourist in the shape of the Ulster hooker Rory Best.
One of Best’s chief rivals for the Irish hooking slot, the South African-born Richardt Strauss, will complete one of the more remarkable comebacks in recent memory this weekend when he sits on the bench for the second-string Irish Wolfhounds just three months after undergoing heart surgery.
Strauss will be part of an extremely strong side charged with doing a job on the England Saxons at Gloucester tomorrow evening – a side featuring players as good as the Munster full-back Felix Jones, the Leinster outside-half Ian Madigan and the free-running Cardiff Blues No 8 Robin Copeland.
Calum Clark, the hard-edged Northampton flanker, will lead a Saxons line-up shot through with quality acts, from the Bath wing Anthony Watson and the Gloucester playmaker Freddie Burns behind the scrum to the eye-catching Saracens hooker Jamie George and the energetic Harlequins flanker Luke Wallace up front.
Watson, released from the senior England squad for this game, will be of particular interest as he attempts to persuade the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, that he is worth a Six Nations debut against France a week tomorrow.