Injuries disrupt World Cup hopes of leading sides

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The Independent Online

Two World Cups ago, the closing scenes of the quarter-final between South Africa and Western Samoa in Johannesburg reminded the viewing public of a particularly gruesome Sam Peckinpah movie: lashings of blood, plenty of gore and small piles of injured dotted across the Ellis Park greensward. Rough? Not by 2003 standards. These days, players require the survival instincts of a cornered rat and a full suit of body armour just to make it to the departure lounge.

Yesterday brought all manner of bad news on the casualty front, leaving the likes of South Africa, New Zealand, France and Wales short of important players. The Springboks confirmed that Jean de Villiers, the gifted young Western Province centre, had suffered serious shoulder damage during this week's final warm-up game in Springs and would not be featuring when the tournament begins in Australia in a little under a fortnight. Wales waved a premature farewell to their ultra-flexible utility forward, Michael Owen, while the French reported that Sylvain Marconnet, their senior tight-head prop, had done himself a mischief while sprinting at top speed. It would never have happened in Fran Cotton's day.

The All Blacks expressed deep concern over Ali Williams, the athletic line-out specialist from Auckland, who is suffering from an "undisplaced fracture of the navicular bone in the right foot", according to Dr John Mayhew, the team medic. As Williams notoriously used this same foot to stamp all over Josh Lewsey's unprotected face during England's victory in Wellington during the summer, and also had the temerity to plead not guilty and get away with it, he will forgive Clive Woodward and company if they do not lose too much sleep over his World Cup prospects.

Wisely, the New Zealand coaches have been working with potential reinforcements during their training get-together in Nelson. Simon Maling, a highly effective lock of the neanderthal variety, will be among the favourites to replace Williams if orthopaedic specialists give the incumbent the thumbs-down. Troy Flavell, the hot-headed Maori from North Harbour, is also being mentioned as a possibility. Either man would give the All Black pack some old-fashioned "grunt". Neither would pose a line-out threat on the Williams scale.

The South Africans have yet to identify a replacement for De Villiers, who only last week was identified as a replacement for the selectors' original midfield choice, Gcobani Bobo, who tore knee ligaments during a run-out against the Free State Cheetahs in Bloemfontein. These warm-up games have caused no end of trouble for a Springbok side already up to their eyeballs in a racism scandal.

Unsurprisingly, the French are perched on the edges of their seats as Marconnet waits for an assessment on the extent of his thigh injury. The team's doctor, Thierry Hermerel, fears he has suffered a deeply torn muscle - a tentative diagnosis, but one that left Bernard Laporte, the national coach, in a state of acute anxiety. Marconnet is a first-choice player only because the real guv'nor, Pieter de Villiers, managed to fall off a mountain bike and smash his shoulder. Even in a scrum-conscious country like France, international tight-head specialists do not grow on trees.

At least Wales know where they are going in the light of Owen's misfortune. Chris Wyatt, the experienced Llanelli lock who very nearly made the cut anyway, has been whistled up for a second World Cup tour of duty. "Owen's back condition means he will be out for another six weeks or so," the coach, Steve Hansen said. "We have taken the common-sense option."