Agrand total of ten props, enough to put a small theatrical group out of business, will be missing when Wales finish their autumn series. The vast majority of the ten, all capped within the last seven years, will be otherwise engaged by the time Australia rock up to the Millennium Stadium on December 1. Their club employers will not be releasing them and why should they for a fixture which falls outside the IRB Test window?
The WRU policy of cramming more matches into the global calendar than almost any other country is driven by a need to make the game pay. There is a price to be paid for everything and the cost to Wales will be seen in how few props they will be able to lean on for the Wallabies’ annual visit.
The problem will be most acute on the loosehead side of the scrum. No fewer than seven such specialists will be unavailable against Australia, a formidable list which emphasises just how many front row forwards are now plying their trade outside Wales.
Fitness permitting, Gethin Jenkins (90 Tests) will be playing for Toulon that weekend, Paul James (37 Tests) for Bath, Rhys Gill (3 Tests) for Saracens, John Yapp (21 Tests) for Edinburgh, Eifion Lewis-Roberts (1 Test) for Sale, Ceri Jones (2 Tests) for Worcester Warriors. A seventh loosehead, Iestyn Thomas (33 Tests) has been forced into retirement because of a chronic neck condition.
Depleted is hardly the word for it. It ought to push Ryan Bevington to the top of a very short list and not simply because he is one Osprey who has not flown the coop but as the best of the new home-based brigade. Good enough to have played a supporting role at the World Cup, Bevington could now find he has the field all to himself against Australia.
The only other capped loosehead who will expect to be around that weekend because he plays for the Ospreys, Duncan Jones, is a veteran of 57 internationals. He has been surplus to requirements since Wales last picked him three years ago so may be marginally above Graham Price and Charlie Faulkner in the old folks’ pecking order.
After losing their international players for the whole of November, the clubs will want their pound of flesh. There is, after all, more to the season than an endless cycle of internationals, even if in Wales a
substantial number of fans follow the national team at the expense of the four regions.
Of the absentee looseheads, Gill remains the most under-used. Anyone capable of giving Adam Jones as hard a time in the set-piece as Gill gave him during the Ospreys-Saracens European Cup-tie in Swansea last season demands the highest recognition.
Fortunately, the cupboard will not be stripped quite as bare on the tighthead side of the scrum, always assuming that the national treasure, Mr A Jones, of Abercrave, stays in one piece. The job of anchoring the scrum requires a very different dynamic which is why the best of the breed are worth their weight in gold.
Three of Jones’ rivals will also be non-starters against Australia on December 1 – Craig Mitchell at Exeter, Ben Broster at Biarritz and Rhys Thomas following the heart attack last January which left him no option but to hang up his boots.
That leaves just two capped tightheads among the four Welsh regions, each beneficiaries of the WRU’s daft decision to grant the annual end-of-season Barbarians fixture international status. Scott Andrews of the Blues appeared for the last half hour of last year’s match and has not been seen in a Welsh jersey since.
Rhodri Jones, a 20-year-old farmer’s son from Aberystwyth, made his bow against the same opposition last month. At 6ft 3in and almost 19st, he has all the physical attributes required in the grunt-’n-groan department and Wales used the Baa-baas friendly to further what they see as Jones’ conversion into a Test tighthead.
Although he did play some under-age rugby there, Jones had been operating as a loosehead for the Scarlets. In contrast, Wales are still well off for hookers (Matthew Rees, Ken Owens, Richard Hibbard) despite Huw Bennett’s move to France as well as the enforced retirement of Lloyd Burns and Gareth Williams.