Pragmatism seems to be in short supply in Wales since that fateful Saturday afternoon just past in the Millennium Stadium. A coaching team who would keep someone who struggled with injuries at the start of the season and who had enough strapping to stock a small pharmacy on his right leg was still on the pitch at all 70 minutes into a meaningless warm up game but as they say hindsight is a wonderful thing and as Sophocles (he of Oedipus Rex fame) said “I have no desire to suffer twice, in reality and then in retrospect”. The reaction to both Leigh Halfpenny’s and Rhys Webb’s injuries has been slightly hyperbolic to say the least, Shane Williams said Wales is “in mourning” which rather exaggerates the fact that 2 people will be back up and walking in a week or two although it does tie in nicely with Wales battling to progress from the “Group of Death” at the Rugby World Cup (I’m still predicting very little, if any actual death occurring in Pool A during October). Dan Biggar described Saturday afternoon as “disastrous” and while that may a little extreme as Biggar has known Leigh Halfpenny for a considerable time (they both played youth rugby for Gorseinon) and he’s been Rhys Webb’s Ospreys teammate since 2007 so his emotion is justifiable. Empathy for 2 people who must be ridiculously frustrated at missing the chance to play in World Cup games in the Millennium Stadium is understandable but “mourning” when both players are 26 years old and have the chance to play in 2 more World Cup tournaments (lest we not forget Halfpenny appeared in the 2011 World Cup).
The severity of both injuries serve to remind just how precarious how the career of a professional rugby player is and while both players should resume their playing career’s there are some who are not so fortunate. This shines a rather dim light on the introduction of “Gatland’s Law” which would preclude any player who plays outside Wales from being selected for the national side (although players who moved away from the principality before the rule was announced are apparently exempt) because players who do move outside Wales to ply their trade will be earning vast sums whereas those who sign “centralised contracts” with the WRU simply won’t because the WRU don’t generate enough revenue. Halfpenny himself is rumoured to be earning around £600,000 a year playing for Rugby Club Toulonnais (and he won the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup) compared to the £270,000 a year that Sam Warburton receives from the WRU after signing a centralised contract which runs to 2017. When injuries can occur as a result of wear and tear like Halfpenny’s did on Saturday planning for the future may well become more important to players than representing their country.
Finally, whilst seeing your friends and somebody who you’ve spent the majority of your time with since July must be traumatic for all involved it should prove to unite the squad and remind them of their common goal and how fortunate they are to be in a position to attempt to be the first Welsh team to won a Rugby World Cup. As Sam Warburton pointed out in his post match comments on Saturday Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny both missed the second Test in South Africa last summer and barring a last second mistake that game was one of the best performances any team in a red shirt has given in recent memory. Whoever is called up to replace both Webb and Halfpenny in the squad will know they have big boots to fill and that motivation alone will mean they can’t fail to make a positive impact. If Liam Williams is fit enough to play in any of the Pool matches he will bring more dynamism and attacking flair than Halfpenny traditionally displays and bringing in the Pro 12’s top scorer in 3 of the last 5 seasons as a goal kicker Dan Biggar isn’t a luxury many nations have. If Liam Williams isn’t available early in the tournament then Wales will have choose between Matthew Morgan and Hallam Amos who are both exciting young talents and will be largely unseen by most opponents whereas Halfpenny is revered around the world so the art of surprise may well work in Wales’ favour.
If I was Warren Gatland I’d be asking not just Rhys Webb and Leigh Halfpenny to be involved with the squad during the World Cup (obviously not on match days) but I’d also ask Jonathan Davies who was injured before the training camp even started if he’d like to talk to the squad. You can coach conditioning and drum game plans into players as often as you like, but camaraderie and team spirit are something that only a group of players can engender between themselves.