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.
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