Welsh fans received the devastating news this week that both Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb have been ruled out of the Rugby World Cup in its entirety. This is compounded by the fact that centre Jonathan Davies has already been ruled out, whilst Alun Wyn Jones, Samson Lee and Liam Williams are all struggling with injury issues.
There is also the question of a loss of form of some key players, whilst a number of the squads most experienced men have been dropped completely meaning that the Wales squad heading into the World Cup will be threadbare at best in a number of key positions that had previously been seen as an area of strength.
There is also the fact that an impressive victory over Ireland in Dublin aside, their World Cup warm up games thus far have been fairly mediocre at best. These issues combined are a serious concern for Wales fans, especially as they prepare to partake in what is arguably the toughest Rugby World Cup pool ever.
In the build up to the tournament there was a serious optimise amongst fans that 2011’s beaten semi-finalists could go one step further with largely the same squad now four years more experienced. Unfortunately the scale of injuries to key personnel has seriously knocked the Welsh side and will raise question marks about their ability to make it out of Pool A.
There is hope however for Wales, with key players like Dan Biggar and Sam Warburton firing, whilst the likes of Justin Tipuric and Scott Williams are pushing hard for starts at the World Cup after impressive outings in recent games. Their impressive victory over Ireland will also give them confidence as they head into the tournament.
The reality is though that their World Cup campaign is likely to be defined by those not their, rather than the players that are involved. Perhaps the biggest loss if Halfpenny who has been a rock at the back for Wales, who also has the added value of being able to slot over penalties from inside his own half, ensuring the opposition remain honest.
Whilst Dan Biggar is a more than competent goal kicker, he does not have the range of Halfpenny thereby reducing Wales’ points scoring potential. Halfpenny’s direct replacement is also likely to be Liam Williams who actually offers more going forward, however as he is returning from injury there are no guarantees of what his match sharpness will be like.
Elsewhere concerns over the return from injury of Alun Wyn Jones and Samson Lee will be a serious concern. This isn’t too much of a concern for the opening game against Uruguay, but if Jones and Lee are unavailable for the second game against England or beyond then there will be some serious holes to fill in the pack.
In Scott Williams, Wales won’t lose much in the midfield with the absence of Jonathan Davies, however his partnership with Jamie Roberts has been developed over a number of years which will be hard to replicate. The loss of Rhys Webb however is absolutely huge given his importance to Wales current style of play and his ability to score tries.
There also have to be serious concerns over the form of one or two key players, most notably of which is Alex Cuthbert. Whilst he still clearly possess an impressive nose for the try line, his wider game has suffered in recent years, and he has looked shorn of confidence in the warm ups. The problem however is that there are a lack of experienced options to replace him now.
The reality is that if Wales were in almost any other group at the World Cup then you would expect them to make it through the group stages where they would likely have the likes of Lee, Jones and Williams fully fit. The problem however is that as it is they have no such luxury given they face off against England, Australia and Fiji.
The one blessing is that an opener against Uruguay provides injured players with an extra week of recovery, or the option of a run out against a predominantly amateur side in which they can regain match sharpness. Whilst you feel they just about have the squad to cope for the time being at least, you can’t help but feel they are just one injury away from a major crisis.
Until last week Wales had as good a chance as anyone of making it out of Pool A, however these two injuries have put them on the back foot before a ball has even been kicked. It’s difficult to completely write their chances off at this stage, but realistically it’s hard to see them toppling either England or Australia unless the current injured players make a miraculous recovery.
In fact, if Wales were to suffer a knock to someone like Gethin Jenkins or Dan Biggar, it’s entirely possible we may see them struggle to even claim the third spot in the group as Fiji represent a serious stumbling block for all the top tier nations in Group A.