Wales climb past England but player exodus continues
You win some, you lose some. Wales, realistic Grand Slam candidates following last weekend's narrow squeak over England at Twickenham, had the second part of a glorious double whammy confirmed yesterday when the International Rugby Board published its new world rankings. Warren Gatland's side are up to fifth at the expense of England, who drop to sixth. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Wales will be a top-four nation by the start of next season.
Yet they may be a top-four nation with minimal control over their leading players. The World Cup hooker Huw Bennett, who missed the Triple Crown triumph because of a calf injury, announced yesterday that he will leave the Ospreys at the end of the current campaign, after agreeing terms with the French Top 14 side Lyon. With a number of leading players, the scrum-half Mike Phillips and the utility back James Hook among them, already across the water and a number of others, including the outstanding tight forwards Gethin Jenkins and Luke Charteris, about to join them, the Red Dragon migration is well and truly under way.
Gatland is alarmed, for good reasons: while IRB regulations guarantee player release during international windows, Wales have taken to playing Tests outside those periods and for such matches they do not necessarily have access to personnel based in France – or, indeed, anywhere else.
"I don't know what the answer is," the coach said recently. "It's difficult to compete with the money being offered overseas, given the financial pressures on our regional sides. My stance has always been that we would love the players to stay here and that we will do everything we can to try to keep them. But they have a very short career at this level."
England, who announced a 32-man squad for training at Loughborough University ahead of the game with France in Paris a week on Sunday, have issues of their own following publication of the rankings. They must return to the top four by the end of this year if they are to begin the home World Cup in 2015 as a seeded team. Failure to do so would leave them at serious risk of sharing a pool with New Zealand, the world champions, or one of the other southern-hemisphere powers. That in turn would threaten them with a far harder quarter-final tie than might otherwise be the case.
Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, played a wholly predictable hand in naming his training squad. Tom Palmer, the lock dropped from the team before the Wales game, was included, as was the Bath hooker Lee Mears, who aggravated a biceps injury a week ago and had to leave the camp for treatment. Lancaster also summoned the Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson, who scored two tries, one of them an absolute gem, in his club's defeat at Sale last Friday night; Charlie Sharples, the Gloucester wing who was on the scoresheet against Harlequins at the weekend; and Thomas Waldrom, the Leicester No 8 who also bagged a brace in the last round of Premiership fixtures.
France, who face Ireland at home this weekend in a rearranged Six Nations game, have recalled Clément Poitrenaud, a brilliant attacking back from Toulouse, as a replacement for his clubmate Maxime Médard, who suffered a knee injury in the victory over Scotland.
Italy, meanwhile, are hoping to address their chronic goal-kicking problems by restoring the long-serving Mirco Bergamasco to their back division in Wales in 11 days' time. Bergamasco has been struggling with shoulder problems since the World Cup, but such are the Azzurri's issues on the marksmanship front that he is under consideration for an immediate return. So too is the folk-hero prop Martin Castrogiovanni, back in the coach Jacques Brunel's squad little over a fortnight after cracking a rib in the defeat by England.
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