The worst fears of the Welsh rugby nation duly came to pass yesterday when the full-back Leigh Halfpenny, by some distance the finest goal-kicker in the sport, was ruled out of the forthcoming World Cup. Halfpenny ruptured the cruciate ligament in his right knee during a calamitous warm-up match with Italy on Saturday and is unlikely to play again for six months.
With Rhys Webb, the senior scrum-half in the squad for the global tournament, also suffering acute orthopaedic problems – he picked up what appeared to be a serious ankle injury in the same game – there was every chance of more bad news as the Red Dragon hierarchy awaited a firm diagnosis from medical staff.
There was no sign of anyone in Wales underreacting to the situation: the revered wing of yesteryear, Shane Williams, said the country was “already in mourning”, while the current outside-half, Dan Biggar, opted for the word “disastrous”. But there was a more positive response from the senior figure in the Red Dragons back division – a man who could yet give Wales a route out of the so-called “pool of death” and into the knockout stage for the second tournament running.
Jamie Roberts, a two-tour Lions Test midfielder and a central component in his country’s game plan, was keen to talk up the prospects of two long-standing colleagues, Mike Phillips and James Hook, as potential replacements.
“The timing of these injuries is desperately unfortunate,” Roberts said. “It’s a blow, there’s no doubting it: they are two wonderful players and they’ve been instrumental in our success in recent years.
“But if Mike is called upon to replace Rhys, he’ll do a stellar job. He handled his omission from the original squad very well, he’s said publicly that he loves playing for Wales and he’ll do anything to play for us again.”
And Hook, versatile enough to play in any of four positions across the back line? “James is a quality player, a quality bloke and a great rugby man. He’d have been gutted to miss out,” Roberts remarked.
The confirmation of the bad news surrounding Halfpenny emerged in France, where the full-back plays his club rugby with the European champions Toulon. Webb, who spent Saturday night in a Cardiff hospital, took to social media to thank supporters for their good wishes, adding: “Trying to stay as positive as possible.”
In the spirit of scrum-half camaraderie, the England No 9 Ben Youngs expressed sympathy for the man he expected to be facing in the big cross-Severn pool game at Twickenham a fortnight this Saturday. Youngs said that if Webb was indeed ruled out, it would be a loss to the tournament. “He’d have worked so hard. To have the dream taken away would be horrible.”
If Youngs was relieved to emerge from the warm-up programme in one piece, there were equally glad tidings from South Africa, where a modern master of the scrum-half role, Fourie du Preez, returned to full training after knee problems of his own.
Du Preez, who made his last appearance for the Springboks last year, has not played for anyone since February, but is now on course to challenge for a second World Cup winner’s medal, to go with the one he received in France eight years ago.Reuse content