England will not have to face the injured Leigh Halfpenny when they run out to face Wales on Friday; and it seems as if Ryan Jones and Lee Byrne will not be in the starting XV either. Warren Gatland is ready to consign both of the Lions to the bench when he names his side today.
Halfpenny, the young Cardiff Blues wing, will be much missed, for his pace, defence and for his long penalty kicks. Yet such was the foreboding when he went down clutching his ankle in training on Monday, there was actually relief in the Welsh camp yesterday that the 22-year-old will only miss the first two games. Gatland has not called up a replacement and will elevate Morgan Stoddart.
The Scarlets flyer will form the back three with Shane Williams and James Hook, who wins the nod at full-back. With Gatland keen to partner Jonathan Davies and Jamie Roberts in the midfield, Hook's talents need a home and, as Byrne is lacking match fitness after recovering from a broken thumb, it is he who makes way. The 30-year-old's mood will have been eased by the big-money move from Ospreys to Clermont Auvergne which was confirmed yesterday. Byrne has signed a three-year contract and will be joined at the French giants by the Scarlets' All Black centre Regan King.
Elsewhere, Dan Lydiate, the Dragons blindside, will line up alongside No 8 Andy Powell and young openside Sam Warburton, leaving Ryan Jones and Jonathan Thomas to provide cover for both second row and back-row. In the front row, the Ospreys' inexperienced tight-head Craig Mitchell will be charged with filling the huge hole left by Adam Jones.
Andy Robinson, the Scotland coach, has preferred Max Evans to Sean Lamont on the wing for Saturday's trip to France, while the lock Alastair Kellock returns as captain. There is no place, however, for No 8 Johnnie Beattie, who missed the autumn series following shoulder surgery. "We've got to match the French pack toe to toe, it's where, in my opinion, the game's going to be won and lost," said Robinson.
Marc Lièvremont, the France coach, sprang his own surprise by dropping inspirational centre, Yannick Jauzion.
For Ireland, injuries have forced Declan Kidney to throw in the Leinster wing Fergus McFadden for his international debut against Italy.