Rees steps forward to lead injury-hit Wales

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The Independent Online

Matthew Rees, the hooker who finally found the best of himself amid the fire and brimstone of the Lions Test series in South Africa last year, will lead Wales in their opening autumn international against Australia on Saturday week. The Scarlets forward takes over the responsibility from Ryan Jones, whose torn calf muscle threatens to keep him out of circulation until the middle of next month.

When the Lions selectors initially declared their hand for the trip to Springbok country, Rees was very much the third hooker of three, behind Jerry Flannery of Ireland and England's Lee Mears. With injury keeping Flannery off the aeroplane and Mears struggling against the South African front row in the first Test in Durban, opportunity knocked for the Welshman. He seized it immediately, played a blinder in the dramatic Pretoria Test and emerged as the tourists' most improved player.

Unfortunately, he is seeing far too many of his countrymen break down around him. Lee Byrne, the senior full-back, was ruled out of the Wallaby match on Monday, and there was more bad news yesterday when another front-line attacker, the Cardiff Blues wing Leigh Halfpenny, was ruled off-limits because of an ankle problem. Aled Brew, the Newport Gwent Dragons wing who won the first of his three caps in 2007, was called into the squad as Halfpenny's replacement.

Meanwhile, the national team's assistant coach and resident folk- hero Neil Jenkins said the early return of another notable absentee, the celebrity centre Gavin Henson, would give the side a timely lift. Henson is close to agreeing a deal with Saracens after taking 19 months out of the game and, if he rediscovers his form as quickly as he has learned to prance around a ballroom, he could yet feature at the World Cup in New Zealand next year.

"We want our best players playing, and Gavin is certainly one of those," Jenkins said. "It won't be easy for him if he's not playing in Wales, but if he's serious about getting involved in the game again, good luck to him."

The Scots, meanwhile, have lost the services of their workhorse flanker Alasdair Strokosch for the entirety of the autumn international window. The Gloucester forward strained knee ligaments during the closing stages of his club's Premiership victory over Harlequins at Kingsholm on Saturday and will miss the Murrayfield meetings with New Zealand, South Africa and Samoa.

Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, has yet to decide whether to fill the hole left by the 27-year-old back-rower. Last season, the so-called "killer Bs" from Glasgow – Kelly Brown, John Barclay and Johnnie Beattie – were Robinson's loose-forward combination of choice, but Beattie is injured and has no chance of featuring in November. Neither has the fast-improving lock Alastair Kellock, so the Scots suddenly look vulnerable after a year of rapid progress at Test level.