Warren Gatland and his Wales coaching staff will know more by the end of today about the World Cup prospects of two kingpin players: the Lions Test full-back Leigh Halfpenny, just about the most reliable marksman in the sport, and the increasingly important scrum-half Rhys Webb. It may be that they may know enough already. The chances of either man featuring at the headline event are widely considered to be zero, at best.
Both were injured in what turned out to be a calamitous warm-up match with Italy at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday. The laboured nature of the home side’s 23-19 victory would not have compensated for a busted toenail on Halfpenny’s kicking foot, let alone the knee damage that reduced the Toulon player to the status of a stretcher case.
If, as reports in Wales suggested yesterday, the scan results reveal a cruciate ligament problem, Gatland can kiss goodbye to one of his principal weapons – a goal-kicker of Jonny Wilkinson standard with the ability to win a tight game from a range of 50 metres or more. Candidates for a call-up will include the New Zealand import Gareth Anscombe, whose own injury issues cost him a place in the original squad, and the multi-talented James Hook, whose maverick streak drives the Red Dragon regime to distraction but has sometimes proved invaluable on the big occasion.
As for Webb, there were suggestions yesterday that he too picked up a knee strain to go with what appeared to be a serious ankle injury. Whatever the extent of his trauma – and he was in sufficiently bad shape to have spent Saturday night in a Cardiff hospital – precious few rugby folk in Wales are expecting to see the Ospreys half-back on the field at Twickenham when England host their nearest and dearest in a mighty pool stage set-to in a little under three weeks’ time.
The assumption is that Mike Phillips, jettisoned along with Hook and the Lions hooker Richard Hibbard in a day of the long knives last month, will be recalled from club duty with the Parisian side Racing Métro. Phillips at his best would be a valuable addition to a Wales squad already missing the outstanding centre Jonathan Davies and fretting over the fitness of key personnel in the prop Samson Lee, the lock Alun Wyn Jones and the outside back Liam Williams. However, Phillips looked a long way short of the optimum when last seen at international level, in the warm-up defeat by Ireland early last month.
Italy, meanwhile, left the Welsh capital with orthopaedic hassles of their own – hardly a welcome development, given the obvious importance of their opening World Cup fixture, against France at Twickenham on 19 September. Two midfielders, Luca Morisi and Gonzalo Garcia, mirrored the Halfpenny-Webb double act by suffering knee and ankle injuries respectively, although these were not initially thought to be anything like as alarming.
Just in case Wales – and England, for that matter – did not have enough on their plates, the wild cards in the forthcoming tournament’s “pool of death” looked vibrantly alive in their final preparatory match in London yesterday. Fiji put five tries past Canada at The Stoop, winning 47-18 and making a clear statement of their attacking ambition.Reuse content