Two of the fastest-improving members of a Wales team who suddenly find themselves 80 minutes or so from a first World Cup final have been slowed to a standstill by injury just at the wrong moment and are significant doubts for this weekend's last-four tie with France at Eden Park. The Scarlets outside-half Rhys Priestland, a rank outsider in the race for the No 10 shirt as recently as the beginning of August, and the Newport Gwent Dragons lock Luke Charteris are causing such concern that the coaching team delayed their team selection yesterday.
Some of those close to the Wales squad believe that even if he is named in the starting line-up today, Priestland has little chance of recovering from the shoulder injury he suffered in the closing minutes of the quarter-final victory over Ireland in Wellington last weekend, although the Red Dragon camp will give their medics every opportunity to get him fit.
Warren Gatland, the head coach, is not bereft of options at stand-off: indeed, he is probably the envy of every other coach still left in the competition – particularly the Dan Carter-less All Black coach Graham Henry – given that he has the reigning British and Irish Lions playmaker Stephen Jones at his disposal, not to mention a midfielder as gifted as James Hook. However, Priestland has been a very big hit indeed in this tournament and the shape he puts on his team's attacking game is at the heart of their success. Gatland and company badly want to run him against Les Bleus.
Charteris was gone by half-time in Wellington, having made 16 tackles in the opening period – a jaw-dropping tally for a lock forward, particular one as tall as he. Like Priestland, he has a shoulder issue. Earlier in the week he was extremely confident he would be "good to go" this weekend, but his condition has not improved as rapidly as expected. Should he be ruled out, Bradley Davies of Cardiff Blues is his likely replacement, although the Welsh have used the former captain Ryan Jones in the engine room on the odd occasion.
The Australians, who take on their great Bledisloe Cup rivals New Zealand in the second semi-final on Sunday, are also firefighting on the injury front, but they at least have their resident Maori, the Waikato-born Quade Cooper, to shift the spotlight away from the medical room and on to centre stage, where he loves to operate as a high-risk outside-half.
Hardly the most popular man in this country, the exiled local has been given a rough ride by home supporters over the course of the tournament. Yesterday, he did a good job in turning the tables on them. Asked how New Zealanders would react to a sixth successive World Cup failure, especially if he turned out to be the man who condemned them to it, he replied: "That would be a tough one for them to swallow, I guess, but I'm sure they've more things to worry about than me. They were supposed to win the tournament on each of the last three occasions and this one is no different. There's a lot of pressure on them."
Cooper was fiercely criticised for his performance against South Africa in the quarter-final, even though the reigning champions were ultimately dispatched from the competition. "It wasn't the brightest performance," he confessed. "But with great teams, great athletes, it shows character when you don't play your best game and still come away with the points.
"Having a good game personally is always going to play second fiddle to winning. I don't care if I have a shocker, as long as we win. I'd much rather walk off the field having won than walk off having had the greatest game of my career and lost."
Wallaby medical staff are working hard on the full-back Kurtley Beale, who has a hamstring strain, and the loose-head prop Sekope Kepu, who is suffering from ankle trouble, ahead of the trans-Tasman contest. Neither man trained yesterday. By contrast, the teak-tough centre Pat McCabe played a full part in the run, despite having been invalided out of two tournament games with serious shoulder problems.