Wales look to gifted Williams to fill Kiwi void

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The Independent Online

It comes to something when the Welsh feel compelled to play a Welshman at full-back but, with the range of Red Dragon options shrinking almost by the hour, Graham Henry and company clearly believe it is time to break new ground and go local. Henry's favourite imported No 15, Shane Howarth of Auckland, is fit but ineligible, while his latest Kiwi protégé, Matthew Cardey of Pakaura, is eligible but unfit; all of which makes Rhys Williams, a ridiculously gifted 20-year-old medical student from Cardiff, an even-money favourite to start this weekend's Six Nations finale against Ireland in Dublin.

"Rhys is training well and I'm delighted to have him in the squad," said Henry yesterday. "He may well play at Lansdowne Road. There are other possibilities; we could move Stephen Jones from outside-half to full-back and play Neil Jenkins at No 10, but we spent most of this morning's session with Rhys in the line-up. He is a youngster with an awful lot of talent."

Given that Henry is a New Zealander, and that Williams is quite obviously the nearest thing to Christian "The Paekakariki Express" Cullen ever likely to emerge from the western banks of the Severn, the youngster's omission from the first four rounds of the tournament was always on the peculiar side of curious. When Howarth fell victim to the "Grannygate" scandal, Henry was presented with a clear opportunity to fast-track the most damaging runner in Welsh rugby, but went for Cardey instead. Williams is only in the frame now because his Llanelli rival suffered concussion during the Scarlets' cup victory over Newport on Saturday.

Those cup quarter-finals certainly took their toll. Mark Taylor of Swansea, an ever-present in the centre this season, is nursing a badly bruised thigh, while Scott Quinnell of Llanelli has shoulder trouble. Taylor's injury, the result of an embarrassingly public stamp by the Neath lock Adam Jackson, left Henry incandescent - "It sends out the important message that we need a citing commissioner in Welsh rugby," the coach said yesterday - while Quinnell's fitness worries threaten the balance of the back row, where selection is already complicated by Geraint Lewis' hamstring condition and Brett Sinkinson's eligibility hassles.

It may well be that Scott Gibbs, out of sorts since before last autumn's World Cup and out of the international side since his country's exit from that tournament at the last eight stage, will probably step up if Taylor fails to respond to treatment. If so, he will renew his midfield partnership with the 35-year-old Allan Bateman, whose form shows no sign of diminishing with age. In light of the injury situation and Ireland's improved form, Henry could do worse than to field two Lions centres against the brilliant Brian O'Driscoll at Lansdowne Road.

There was depressing news yesterday concerning the younger of the Quinnell brothers, Craig, who must undergo spinal surgery to repair double stress fractures at the base of his back. "Rehabilitation in these cases tend to depend on the individual and both Craig and the medical team are very positive," said Robert Norster, Quinnell's team manager at Cardiff. Even though the player is unlikely to feature again this season, he can take sustenance from the fact that his club-mate, Emyr Lewis, had a similar operation last year and is now back to optimum form and fitness.

Scotland will also need to raid their supply of fringe players following last night's confirmation from the International Rugby Board that David Hilton, the Glasgow Caledonians prop, is ineligible for this Sunday's Calcutta Cup match with England. Hilton won more than 40 caps for Scotland through grandparental qualification, but it transpired last week that the grandfather he thought was born in Edinburgh was in fact born in Bristol, his own home town. The IRB will consider possible sanctions at a disciplinary hearing in the near future.

The French, meanwhile, are seriously concerned for the well-being of their Six Nations lock, Jean Daude, after a grisly incident during the Castres-Bourgoin game at the weekend. Daude, who was playing for Bourgoin, collided with Jeremy Davidson, the Irish international second row, and was taken to the nearest casualty department with suspected brain damage. After an initial examination, he was moved to the neurological unit at the Union Clinic in Toulouse.

"Jean is the victim of a violent brain trauma," reported Dr Gilles Dubois. "He is conscious and is breathing without artificial aid, but his state requires attentive medical surveillance."

Dr Dubois confirmed that Daude had suffered a "severe contusion" to the medulla, a section of the brain connected to the spinal cord. Davidson suffered no ill effects from the clash of heads and is now in Ireland preparing for this weekend's match with Wales.

Another Bourgoin player, the centre Stéphane Glas, has withdrawn from the Tricolore squad for the final Six Nations meeting with Italy after picking up a groin injury during the defeat at Castres: a development that will merely confirm Bernard Laporte, the national coach, in his view that French rugby's relentless club schedule is undermining his efforts at the top level. The uncapped Cedric Heymans of Agen has been called into the party.

WALES SQUAD (Lloyds TSB Six Nations' Championship v Ireland, Dublin, Saturday): Backs: R Williams (Cardiff), G Thomas (Cardiff), A Bateman (Northampton), M Taylor (Swansea), S Williams (Neath), D James (Llanelli), S Jones (Llanelli), N Jenkins (Cardiff), R Moon (Llanelli), R Smith (Ebbw Vale). Forwards: P Rogers (Newport), D Young (Cardiff, capt), S John (Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), R McBryde (Llanelli), I Gough (Pontypridd), A Moore (Swansea), N Budgett (Ebbw Vale), C Charvis (Swansea), M Williams (Cardiff), G Lewis (Pontypridd), S Quinnell (Llanelli).