The Wales hierarchy had sensed the bad news coming down the track for some time, but when the confirmation finally arrived yesterday it was still hard to take. Matthew Rees, the 30-year-old hooker from the Rhondda who forced his way into the Lions Test front row in Springbok country two years ago before establishing himself as captain of the national team, will miss the forthcoming World Cup because of a serious neck injury that certainly requires surgery and may threaten his rugby career.
"It's incredibly disappointing for us to lose our captain, but there are more important things in life than rugby," said Shaun Edwards, assistant coach to the Red Dragonhood. "He is in such pain, rugby has to come second. You have to take the doctor's opinion and get the operation done because you can't live your life like that. Matthew normally has a bit of banter and likes a joke, but he is not himself. He can't sleep; he's in constant agony."
This is a bitter blow to Wales and removes some of the feel-good factor generated by their victory over England at the Millennium Stadium at the weekend. Rees, very much in his front-row prime, has long been regarded as the outstanding hooker in the Principality, and he cemented his reputation with his performances for the British Isles in '09 – most notably in the second Test in Pretoria, when he joined his countrymen Gethin Jenkins and Adam Jones in the first all-Welsh unit to play for the Lions in more than half a century.
Warren Gatland, the head coach, now has an issue on his hands. A top-class hooker during his own playing days, the New Zealander understands better than anyone the importance of having a dependable performer operating at the heart of the scrum – not to mention throwing in at the line-out. Richard Hibbard, the Ospreys forward, is frequently talked of as a player of international potential, but he recently underwent shoulder surgery and is nowhere near match-hard, although he is in contention to feature in Wales' final warm-up match with Argentina in Cardiff on Saturday.
Other options include the largely untested Newport Gwent Dragons hooker Lloyd Burns, whose performance against England three days ago was a mix of raw energy and naivety; Ken Owens, the youngster who has been understudying Rees at Scarlets; and Huw Bennett of Ospreys, easily the most experienced of the three. "It's kind of been on the cards, but it's devastating for Matthew," said Bennett. "I'm sure he's gutted to have had to choose this route, but you have to put your health to the fore. When you lose your captain in any sport you lose a major cog, but there are people who can step up."
Wales have lost two backs, the wing Morgan Stoddart and the centre Gavin Henson, to injury since the start of the warm-up programme, and are still sweating on the fitness of a number of senior hands: the aforementioned prop Jenkins, the back-five forward Ryan Jones and the outside-half Stephen Jones among them. However, they expect to have Adam Jones back on the tight head of their scrum against the Pumas.
As the world's leading teams prepare to confirm their selections for the global gathering in New Zealand – the deadline is early next week – injury bulletins are coming thick and fast. Australia have resigned themselves to crossing the Tasman without their top loose-head prop Benn Robinson, who has failed to recover from a torn knee ligament and, like Rees, has opted for surgery. "I pushed really hard to make it but the knee just isn't right," he said, adding that he felt "very disheartened".
South Africa, meanwhile, will keep their full-back Frans Steyn away from this weekend's Tri-Nations meeting with the All Blacks in Port Elizabeth, having seen the Paris-based player pick up a hamstring problem during Saturday's defeat by the Wallabies in Durban. They may, however, have the brilliant World Cup-winning flanker Juan Smith in their squad for the big tournament. Against all the odds, Smith has worked his way back from a serious achilles tendon injury and is expected to play a Currie Cup match for Free State this weekend.