Wales are no strangers to forfeiting important players during a World Cup campaign: four years ago, in New Zealand, they lost both the flanker Sam Warburton and the prop Adam Jones during the opening minutes of their semi-final against France and were knocked out as a consequence. This time, they are suffering their personnel blows ahead of the tournament.
Jonathan Davies, the outside centre from Carmarthenshire who played well enough on the British & Irish Lions tour of Australia in 2013 to render the great midfielder Brian O’Driscoll surplus to requirements, will play no part at this autumn’s global gathering because of a serious knee injury. The France-based exile ruptured a cruciate ligament during a league outing for Clermont Auvergne against Montpellier last weekend and is expected to be incapacitated for at least six months.
Warren Gatland, the Wales head coach, described the news as “disappointing”, which was something of an understatement. He has a ready-made replacement in the excellent Scott Williams, who played alongside Davies in the Llanelli-based Scarlets regional side until the latter’s decision to make some serious money in Top 14 rugby on the other side of the water, but even so, Gatland could have opted for the word “calamitous” without being accused of exaggeration.
Top-quality centres do not grow on trees: ask England, the World Cup hosts and one of Wales’ pool rivals, who have spent a full decade searching for a midfield combination that truly works for them. As another Lions Test cap, Gavin Henson, is out of the reckoning after breaking his fibula while on club duty with Bristol a week ago, the supply of experienced international operators is limited.
Gatland revealed at least part of his contingency plan by withdrawing the much talked about Newport Gwent-Dragons youngster Tyler Morgan from the Wales Under-20 squad preparing for next week’s Junior World Cup in Italy. Morgan is now certain to be included when the coach names his training squad for the main event in early June.
Another product of the Scarlets system, the tight-head prop Samson Lee, is also struggling for fitness after rupturing an Achilles tendon during the Six Nations Championship, while the free-scoring wing, George North, has yet to resume active duty following a series of concussions. While Gatland expects North to be declared fit for training, another knock on the head would raise grave concerns about his immediate future in the sport.
There was better news on the availability front in Ireland. Chris Henry, the Ulster flanker who suffered what was described as a “mini stroke” last November, will resume his representative career for the Six Nations champions when he faces the Barbarians at Thomond Park in Limerick tonight. He has been named in a strong pack featuring the Lions No 8 Jamie Heaslip, the much-improved Leinster line-out specialist Devon Toner and hooker Richardt Strauss.
“Chris was very much in our thoughts right through the Six Nations,” said the national coach, Joe Schmidt. “His progress has been heartening and it’s great to have him back. He’s bubbling with enthusiasm.”
Schmidt went on to deny playing any role in Matt O’Connor’s recent sacking as Leinster’s head coach – a development said by some to have had its roots in a disagreement between the two men over player management.
“I was as surprised as anyone,” said Schmidt, who, as O’Connor’s immediate predecessor, guided the Dubliners to two European titles. “It wasn’t the Irish Rugby Football Union’s decision. It was purely a Leinster game board decision. That’s the autonomy they have and that’s the decision they made.”Reuse content