There are still just under two weeks to go until the Rugby World Cup kicks off, but Wales’ hopes are in ruin following the news every Welsh fan was dreading – full-back Leigh Halfpenny will miss the tournament.
Just as sweetly as one of Halfpenny’s numerous match-winning kicks bisecting the posts and dropping to the Millennium Stadium turf would have been cheered fervently, Wales’ World Cup hopes, set to be propelled by the 26-year-old’s metronomic right boot, have also now plummeted.
Halfpenny is not just Wales’ best player. He is one of the world’s best too. The full-back has carved a fearsome reputation as a deadly asset for club and country, able to hurt teams with his long-range kicking, equally in terms of point-scoring and relieving pressure.
Add in his composure under the high ball, tireless work in Wales’ renowned dogged defence, not to mention his ability to attack from deep or as part of a swarming Dragons back-line, it’s not excessive to suggest Wales’ World Cup dreams are effectively over.
The tournament has lost one of its genuine stars and while it sounds cliche, on the biggest stage you want to see the best players on the field.
Such was his importance it made him one of four irreplaceable players to their teams; the other three being Richie McCaw of New Zealand, Italy captain Sergio Parisse and Ireland fly-half Jonny Sexton.
Take any of that trio out of their respective teams and their chances of success are dramatically decreased, with the level of replacement simply not at the same standard, whether in influence, leadership, goalkicking, game management, defence or any other attribute on the field and in the dressing room.
This is all not to say Wales are devoid of talent. Far from it. But without world-class players like Halfpenny, their ability to win games in the crucial moments, against the big teams, and in the twilight stages of the tournament, is dramatically diminished.
At the conclusion of the Six Nations, Wales were buoyant. Effectively the World Cup is also, in-part, a home tournament, with games against Uruguay and Fiji in Cardiff.
They were also lifted by a 12-6 win against South Africa last November – Halfpenny’s four penalties delivering a first win against the Springboks in 15 years.
Then came the World Cup-ending injury to centre Jonathan Davies, George’s North’s concussion concerns, niggling injuries to Alun-Wyn Jones and Liam Williams, and the double injury blow to scrum-half Rhys Webb and Halfpenny against Italy.
Warren Gatland, who still has to worry about the fitness of scrum-half Webb, is not without options completely and the depth in the backs runs deep.
Liam Williams is more than adroit at 15, but that means the out of form Alex Cuthbert starting on the wing, with Halfpenny’s kicking duties passed to a reliable deputy in fly-half Dan Biggar.
Wales still possess an embarrassment of riches in their squad. Halfpenny’s absence, however, will leave Welsh fans feeling broke.
This week’s #360Rugby takes in Scotland’s new joie de vivre, England’s settled Rugby World Cup starting XV and Argentina’s star Super Rugby recruits.
– Wales: Leigh Halfpenny ruled out of Rugby World Cup
– England: RFU would allow Lancaster to lead British Lions
– Wales: Team must press on after injuries to key players
– England: Jonnny May seems set for World Cup spot
Wales all but out of World Cup reckoning
When news broke on Monday afternoon that Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny would miss the World Cup, you could hear the cries from the Dragons faithful in Jebel Ali.
Not literally of course but the importance of Halfpenny to the Welsh hopes of a first Rugby World Cup crown can not be underestimated.
The Toulon star was a casualty of his nation’s 23-19 victory over Italy in Cardiff this weekend where he tore a knee ligament that has now ended his chances of leading Wales on the grandest stage of them all.
While in sport you never write off a country before the tournament’s began, it is probably fair to say that with Halfpenny’s withdrawal went Wales’ hopes of glory.
Too premature to say, with Halfpenny’s injury, that Wales’ RWC hopes are over two weeks before the tournament even kicks off? In a word, no
— Matt Jones (@MattJones360) September 7, 2015
Laidlaw’s decision shows there is a new Scotland in town
Greig Laidlaw’s decision at the end of the game to turn down a straightforward three-pointer and a draw in favour of a kick to touch and a possible away win speaks volumes about Scotland’s new team.
Detractors will point to the fact that the Scots had the chance to arrest a 16-year losing streak in Paris but the scrum-half’s decision was the correct one.
As it happened the dark blues’ endeavor came to nothing but the significance of their positivity should not be underestimated.
Under Vern Cotter, Scotland are not satisfied with anything less than a win and came very close to beating a French team that outplayed England twice last month.
With South Africa in indifferent form and Samoa inconsistent at best, Group B will be the most competitive and compelling group by some distance.
— EatSleepRugby (@Eat_Sleep_Rugby) September 1, 2015
England settle pre-World Cup jitters in style
England’s chariot is back on the rails. To say that The World Cup hosts have looked nervous in the last month is an understatement but against Ireland, Stuart Lancaster’s men looked back to their best.
Going into the game there were many question marks over England’s first-choice XV with the second-row and centre combinations a particular area of concern.
However Geoff Parling and Courtney Lawes showed cohesion in the lineout with 14 wins from 14 throws to nail down starting jerseys while Brad Barritt slotted in nicely next to Jonathan Joseph.
Ireland were touted as one of the pre-World Cup favourites before this match but failed to live up to the hype with a strangely lethargic display despite a full strength team.
— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) September 6, 2015
Clermont move up a gear
This year’s Top 14 pace-setters Clermont continued their perfect start to the season with a 41-24 obliteration of Oyonnax.
Chief tormenter at the Stade Charles-Mathon was former All Black wing and one of international rugby’s most underrated finishers Hosea Gear, who looks like an early contender for the most exciting player in the division.
It is interesting to note that while leading teams in the Premiership and Pro12 suffer during international windows due to the unavailability of their top players; leading French teams tend to get stronger.
With no restrictions on employing foreign talent, Clermont are able to paper over the cracks left by their departing French stars and this yellow pain train shows no signs of slowing.
Former England & Bath full-back Nick Abendanon has signed a new three-year contract to stay with Clermont Auvergne. pic.twitter.com/D48kOh0HkQ
— EatSleepRugby (@Eat_Sleep_Rugby) September 5, 2015
Argentinean stars sign up for Super Rugby
Seasoned Argentinean internationals Juan Manuel Leguizamón and Juan Martin Hernandez have signed up to represent the Argentinean side in their inaugural Super Rugby campaign next year.
The southern hemisphere’s premier club competition is known for its high tempo and whilst it is not ideal to be carrying too many elder statesmen, the South American’s will need all the leadership they can muster in order to make their transition into the tournament as smooth as possible.
In terms of preparation, Toulon fly-half Hernandez will be able to share his experiences from his season playing for South Africa’s Natal Sharks in the 2010 Currie Cup and will have a very good understanding of the demands of Super Rugby.
It is no doubt going to be a very steep learning curve for the Super Rugby rookies but if they can replicate their international team’s success in the Rugby Championship, then a realistic goal for the team is to finish mid-table by 2018.
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) September 4, 2015
This week’s extra-time serves as a double lesson to youngsters playing the game.
Sam Burgess’ huge hit on Ian Madigan during England’s win against Ireland is a shining example of perfect tackling technique and how to gain 40 yards with aggressive defence.
On the flip side Madigan will not thank his inside man for giving him what is known in the trade as a ‘hospital pass’ for obvious reasons.
Wales were dealt a hammerblow Monday when full-back Leigh Halfpenny was ruled out of the Rugby World Cup after suffering torn right knee ligaments in a warm-up match against Italy on the weekend.
Toulon star Halfpenny, one of the outstanding goal-kickers of his generation, sustained the injury in Wales' hard-fought 23-19 win over the Azzurri at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday.
Halfpenny, 26, underwent a scan on Monday, Toulon president Mourad Boudjellal telling AFP that his star full-back would now be out for around six months.
The Welsh Rugby Union added: "Wales full-back Leigh Halfpenny has suffered an ACL injury, ruling him out of the forthcoming Rugby World Cup.
"Leigh will undergo further examination and assessment before further details are announced."
Wales kick off their World Cup campaign against Uruguay on September 20, going on to play hosts England, Fiji and two-time champions Australia in the toughest of the four pools.
The line-up means at least one of rugby union's major nations won't qualify for the quarter-finals as only the top two teams go through to the last eight.
Aside from Halfpenny, Wales could face more bad news, with in-form scrum-half Rhys Webb also injured against the Italians.
Webb suffered suspected serious ligament damage to his ankle in the first half after falling awkwardly at a ruck.
It would be a further cruel blow for Wales coach Warren Gatland, who already lost key centre Jonathan Davies at the start of the summer.
Halfpenny's understudy Liam Williams is only himself coming back from a broken bone in his foot.
Gatland will now look to call up a replacement for Halfpenny, likely to come down between New Zealand-born utility back Gareth Anscombe, who is also currently out for up to three weeks with an ankle ligament injury, and James Hook. Both are proven kickers.
Mike Phillips is the natural choice to replace Webb, particularly given the lack of experience between remaining scrum-halves Gareth Davies and Lloyd Williams.