A disjointed performance against Italy, paled into insignificance after the serious injuries to Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny. So can Wales cope?
Coping with life after Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb
The only problem with friendlies is that when a team loses a player through injury, it’s particularly galling. A situation where the expense of the injury doesn’t justify the perceived benefits of playing the game. That feeling was multiplied by a factor of ten when Wales played Italy on Saturday and lost both Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny from Wales’ Rugby World Cup squad.
Every supporter, player and pundit winces when an individual is injured in a game. But when it occurs a matter of days before the Rugby World Cup, the emotion is magnified. Such has been the media coverage of punishing training camps and both Webb’s and Halfpenny’s particular brand of excellence, that it didn’t feel like a ‘player’ getting injured, it was like watching your first born ‘face planting’ off a park swing. Both will clearly be missed and we all wish them well with their recovery.
Halfpenny’s kicking from distance is irreplaceable
All aspects of Leigh Halfpenny’s skillset will be missed by Wales. His defence and miraculously low error count in particular, but his goal kicking truly is irreplaceable. Many will rightly point at Dan Biggar’s goal kicking ability, which is test standard, and as good as virtually every elite goal kicker. But Halfpenny’s goal kicking percentages are at a different level. When Leigh Halfpenny regularly kicks at 85 per cent that includes kicks from well over 45 metres.
Halfpenny’s goal kicking completion includes kicks that few frontline kickers even attempt. He doesn’t even have a ‘weak side of the pitch’, unlike kickers such as Christian Leali’ifano, Halfpenny’s technique produces a perfectly straight ball, meaning that he is equally proficient on both sides of the pitch. But the most important aspect of Halfpenny’s kicking is the affect it has on the opposition – it doesn’t just affect the scoreboard, it can affect the way they defend. Any overly aggressively line speed, hands in rucks, or side entries, within 50m of the posts, have an 80% chance of conceding three points. He will be missed, sorely.
Mike Phillips’ last hurrah
No player enjoys being dropped from their national squad; especially a month prior to the Rugby World Cup but Mike Phillips would have felt it more than most. He has owned the Welsh shirt since 2008 and was unchallenged amongst the Welsh squad. Then Warren Gatland, as with Adam Jones, dispensed with Phillips. However, this rejection can be turned into a positive for Phillips. His game has never relied on technical ability, speed of pass or footwork.
Phillips’ game has always relied on hyena-like aggression, a piston-like hand-off and a physique that allows him to ride contact with the majority of elite backrow forwards. Phillips will saunter back into the Welsh camp like rugby’s version the comeback kid. This is a big, and more than likely, final hurrah for Mike Phillips; he won’t want to sign off with any regrets after a stellar career…
Opportunity knocks for Eli Walker
Eli Walker’s presence in the Rugby World Cup squad is very intriguing; having lost a fullback in Leigh Halfpenny they have replaced him with Walker, a specialist wing and a player who certainly couldn’t confidently cover fifteen at test level. Making a huge assumption, it could lead us to believe that Liam Williams will be fit for the Welsh games that matter, leaving Williams, Hallam Amos and Matthew Morgan covering 15 and Walker covering wing Cuthbert and North. Walker’s inclusion is a defensive risk, but a huge attacking opportunity.
Walker is essentially Wales’ Jonny May; a player with more wheels than a millipede’s roller-skates. With the width of passing from both Scott Williams and Cory Allen, at 13, Walker could find himself in positions where his outside speed can exploit space; rather than the short balls that George North and Alex Cuthbert have tended to have to run back in field to collect from Jon Davies. Every Rugby World Cup has a player who ‘bolts’ from nowhere, this time, it could be Eli.
Gatland not to blame for the injuries
Having lost both Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny many took to Twitter to lambast Warren Gatland and his coaching staff. Most asking why were two such key players still on the field with the majority of the game completed? But both of those injuries could have occurred in the first minute of the game, the second minute of the trip to Qatar, the 33rd minute of the first hit out against Ireland or the first minute against Uruguay.
The reality is that injuries happen and in this instance they are nobody’s fault. Come the end of the Rugby World Cup, and its outcome, there may be plenty of genuine opportunities to criticise Warren Gatland’s decisions over the World Cup period, but playing Rhys Webb, and Leigh Halfpenny, against Italy shouldn’t be one of them