Wales' send-off party for Rugby World Cup falls horribly flat
Martyn Thomas
September 6, 2015
© Dan Mullan/Getty Images

CARDIFF, Wales -- As the Wales bus withdrew from the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night and meandered through a dispirited Cardiff city centre towards the team's Vale of Glamorgan base, their Kiwi head coach may well have been scrambling around for a reset button.

Warren Gatland had brought his team to Westgate Street with the intention of putting on a show as they dotted the i's and crossed the t's on their Rugby World Cup preparation.

But just hours later the party atmosphere in Cardiff had been replaced with a serious sense of foreboding. Not only had Gatland's side struggled to see off Italy in front of their own fans, but two of their most important players had suffered potentially tournament-ending injuries.

The sight of Rhys Webb leaving the action on a stretcher, with his left ankle heavily strapped, in the first half could prove a cruel blow to a player currently on the top of his game. But worse was to come before full-time as full-back, goal-kicker and all-round talisman Leigh Halfpenny crocked his knee.

As the Toulon man was shown on the big screen sucking on oxygen as he received treatment there was a palpable and audible intake of breath from the 52,981 in attendance. This was not how those fans had imagined their evening panning out.

Gatland and Wales will wait anxiously for the results of scans before officially ruling either player out of the World Cup, but the omens do not look good. Losing either Halfpenny or Webb would be a huge blow; losing both could ultimately prove insurmountable.

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Pool A already looked daunting prior to yesterday's action with Australia, England and Fiji - who have World Cup previous with Wales - standing in the way of progression to the knockout stages. Without two of the squad's most influential backs, it suddenly begins to resemble mission impossible.

Gatland insists he has yet to give serious consideration to who might be called up as replacements, but you can guarantee that would change on Sunday morning.

Mike Phillips appears to be the obvious candidate to come in for Webb, even after he was unceremoniously jettisoned last month. He was a big presence in the set-up until fairly recently and would be relied upon to slot straight in, although Gatland could take the opportunity to call up a third hooker and appease the likes of Sir Clive Woodward.

The solution surrounding Halfpenny is a lot less clear-cut, however. Were he to be ruled out it would leave Gatland with only one trusted goal-kicker in Dan Biggar.

He remains unconvinced by back-up fly-half Rhys Priestland's abilities in that department and with Liam Williams and Matthew Morgan both offering cover at full-back, Gatland could look to bring in a trusty boot. Unfortunately for the New Zealander his preferred option, Gareth Anscombe, is currently injured, which might just open up a surprise recall for James Hook.

Regardless of who eventually comes into the squad, Wales will need to banish the kind of mistakes that littered their display on Saturday. Alex Cuthbert's early intercepted pass set the tone for a miserable afternoon which continued with a couple of dropped kick offs for Taulupe Faletau, a very late tackle from Dominic Day and five penalties conceded at the scrum.

Italy had arrived with purpose and intent, and the hosts simply had little answer on an evening in which the visitors looked hungrier from the warm-up through to the final whistle. The insipid performance on the pitch fed into the stands where, despite a closed roof, little atmosphere was generated from a healthy crowd.

In truth they had come to be entertained, it was just unfortunate for them that the Welsh players seemed to expect to do so with the minimum effort and concentration. Sergio Parisse quickly ripped up that script and Gatland now faces an unenviable re-write of his master plan.

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© Martyn Thomas