Out to banish ghosts of 2007
August 17, 2011
The loss of Matthew Rees and the doubts over Gethin Jenkins' fitness will be weighing heavy on Warren Gatland's mind © Getty Images
Glass half empty, or half full? The conundrum often facing anyone who follows Wales seemed peculiarly appropriate immediately after the two Rugby World Cup warm-up matches against England.
There was no humiliation of the sort that accompanied the 2003 and 2007 warm-ups. A defeat of the old enemy is never to be sniffed at, and anyone who was counting could even claim an aggregate victory over the two weekends, with a try ratio of four to two. It seems that we have a back-row, and real spirit and a will to win. But at the same time there was the thought of what one of the southern giants, Ireland, a half-competent French team or even - or perhaps in particular - Samoa or Fiji might have done to a Wales team playing at the level seen over the 160 minutes at Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium.
But then, with the announcement of the team to play Argentina on Saturday, came the answer. Gethin Jenkins is not available - not only for this final friendly, but for the World Cup opener against champions South Africa. This is the glass rolling off a table and smashing on the stone floor below.
It is true - as rugby-loving French president Charles de Gaulle was keen to point out - that the graveyards are full of indispensable men. But some men are more dispensable than others.
And there were always going to be injuries that ruled players out of the World Cup. Rugby players get hurt. It goes with the job. But you can only feel desperately sorry for anyone to whom it happens.
Whoever Matthew Rees's worst enemy is - and given the spikiness associated with the position, I can't believe he has come this far in life without making one - he surely would not wish to deprive him of the honour of leading his country in a World Cup.
At the same time the hard-headed (and perhaps hard-hearted) question being asked will be whether Wales will be so much worse off with Huw Bennett or Richard Hibbard at hooker and the ever more impressive Sam Warburton leading the team. Rees is a fine player, but his attributes are present elsewhere in the squad.
You can't say the same of Jenkins - or the other component of Wales's all-Lions front row - Adam Jones. Which is not to say that the alternatives are inadequate. But there is nobody with the fearsome scrummaging abilities of Jones, or the all-round game of Jenkins, who combines propping with handling and defensive skills more usually associated with top-class back-rowers.
These are the players who are really missed - those who bring something different, and not readily replicated. It is the reason why James Hook remains the essential element in the Welsh back division. England were beaten on Saturday not only because of heroic defence, and their own reversion to zombiedom, but because Hook was the only player on either side - with Toby Flood losing his way and England incapable of working Ben Foden into the game - with the creativity needed to unlock an international defence.
And however much we continue to kid ourselves that Welsh rugby players have gifts not granted to natives of other parts of these islands, Wales is not currently terribly long on those qualities, either. That's the reason why the emergence of Rhys Priestland as a midfielder with footballing qualities is so timely, and the injury to Gavin Henson - just as he was showing exactly why Warren Gatland was willing to stretch so many points to accommodate him - such a blow. Decent, solid, hard-working, straight-running, physically powerful backs? Got them in numbers. Footballers? Not nearly enough.
The six to eight week absence predicted by Wales's medical staff for Henson takes us to late September. Most of us would be profoundly relieved to be told that Wales will still have an interest in the World Cup by then, given that South Africa and Samoa are to be played in the two opening fixtures.
And the already remote thought that Henson might still be taken to New Zealand is effectively ended by the news about Jenkins. The indications were already pretty strong that Gatland would opt for a 17-13 forward-back split in the squad, rather than 16-14. To have Jenkins, who when fit is one of the first three or four names on the team-sheet, not available for the opening match makes this pretty much a certainty. No coach wants to take walking wounded to a World Cup, but if there is going to be a 30th man on rehab, it is clear that it will - and should - be Jenkins.
All of this assumes, of course, that he will be fit for the vital clash with Samoa at Hamilton on September 18th. Should that come into doubt...it really does not bear thinking about at the moment.
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