Woes of the back row Trouble comes in threes for Wales as they look forward to the Five Nations. Owe n Slot reports

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RICHIE COLLINS, the Wales and Pontypridd flanker, was walking through Cardiff on 23 September when he encountered Ieuan Evans and Rupert Moon, both of whom were crestfallen. Scott Quinnell had just announced his defection to rugby league, they exp lained, and thus the melancholy. Three and a half months on, when Collins puts into perspective the adversity that has dogged the Welsh back row this season, Quinnell's defection, he says, is not the disaster it was then made out to be. "In fact, when I consider all the news, that actually makes the least impression on me."

The news has arrived almost weekly, and mostly in health bulletins. Such was Quinnell's dramatic arrival on the international scene last season, together with his rugby union pedigree, that this blow was the most publicly felt. However, he is just one ofsix players who filled the Welsh back row in 1994, of whom five are now unavailable for the Five Nations opener against France in Paris on 21 January. Collins is the only man still standing and, he says, "It's got to the stage when you think there soon won't be anybody left." His sentiments are echoed by Alan Davies, the national coach: "It's been so frustrating, because we went on our South Seas tour in the summer to develop the team, and look what has happened to the players we have been working on."

The result, as the team which was announced on Friday showed, is the recall of Llanelli's Phil Davies and Stuart Davies, the Swansea skipper. The former will be playing his first international at No8 since October 1991, while the Swansea man will be winning his 13th cap at blindside flanker 15 months after his last international appearance.

How different from the settled Welsh side which returned home from the tour at the end of June. A confident back-row unit had formed with Collins at open-side and two of Quinnell, Emyr Lewis, the Cardiff No8 who could also double as a flanker, and Hemi Taylor, Cardiff's regular blind-side, filling the other two spots. Steve Williams of Neath, one of the young developing players, had been blooded at No8 and Mark Perego, the previous incumbent of Collins's place, was expected to make a challenge having re covered from injury.

Perego, however, was the first to fall, but by his own volition. The Llanelli fireman had turned his back on the game a number of times before, and no one was surprised when he absented himself from the start of Llanelli's - and therefore Wales's - season. "It didn't surprise me because he's done it so many times," Alan Davies says. "But it disappointed me - just as it does when players go through to rugby league without telling me."

When Quinnell went north a few weeks later, selection for the back row no longer became an issue. The Collins, Lewis, Taylor unit picked itself for the internationals against Romania, Italy and South Africa but, by the last of these, Williams had suffered an injury that would keep him out for the rest of the season, and the reserves' cupboard was bare.

This problem soon became a crisis. Collins was watching Rugby Special Wales on 11 December and saw Lewis being carried off with torn ankle ligaments 15 minutes into Cardiff's victory over Bridgend, the recovery period from such an injury uncertain. Then,on Boxing Day, Collins was at home with his parents and his father told him that he had heard that Taylor had damaged his hand in a fight in a cardiff night club three nights previously. Taylor's damage, it turned out, was so bad that he would probably miss the rest of the season, and Lewis's ankle has not recovered quickly enough for the French game.

It is these last two absentees, says Collins, which are the worst for Wales. "Scott's strength, as we know, was driving through opposition. But he did lack a bit of ball skill - presumably he would have picked that up as his career progressed. Emyr, though, is on a par with him when running with the ball, and he also has a better knowledge of when to give it and when to drive on.

"Hemi, though, is the player I personally will miss most. We had a run of seven games together and we were getting a bit of a rapport going. It was great to play with Hemi: I knew what he was going to do with the ball and, if I had it, I could be sure that he was going to be there or thereabouts. That gives you great reassurance, and likewise it was great to know that if I was a little bit slow to the ball, Hemi would always be there."

It is remarkable that Collins should be the sole back row survivor, especially since he had not been capped since the 1991 World Cup. "I was only called up because of Mark's injury," he says. "But Mark got in because Richard Webster went north, and Webster got in when I got injured. So it's come round full circle." His durability is all the more impressive given that he is 32 and the oldest of the 1994 back rowers "He's really done very well," says Davies. "And of all of them, he's the one who is not supposed to be able to stand the rigours of international rugby any more."

The Welsh six-pack of '94: Five casualties and one survivor Mark Perego Llanelli flanker who has walked away from rugby a number of times, putting family and mountain- running first. Turned his back on the sport - and his international career - at the start of this season.

Scott Quinnell Former Llanelli No8 who raised the hopes of the nation when bursting on to the international scene last year, and then dashed them all by turning professional in September. Not yet established at Wigan.

Steve Williams Neath No8, 24, one of the new Welsh lights, first capped on South Seas tour. His leg injury, which keeps him out for the rest of the season, went almost unnoticed in Neath's pitch battle with South Africa.

Emyr Lewis Cardiff No8, played blind side in last season's Five Nations. Joined the injury list on 10 December having torn ankle ligaments against Bridgend. Returns for next Five Nations game, against Scotland on 18 February.

Hemi Taylor Cardiff flanker, last year became the first Kiwi Welsh cap having lived in Wales for six years. A bizarre casualty: out for Five Nations having injured his hand in a fight at a Cardiff night spot. Back for the World Cup.

Richie Collins The sole survivor and the oldest of the lot (32), but regarded by some as the fittest man in Welsh rugby so he may yet survive. Plays flanker for Pontypridd where he is at his best after moving from Cardiff in 1993.