By Peter Jackson
Rhys Priestland will be back in contention for a third World Cup despite his omission from Wales’ four-match Autumn series.
Support for Bath’s ‘re-invented’ playmaker comes today from the most decorated of all Welsh fly- halves, the invincible Lion and double Grand Slam winner Phil Bennett.
“Rhys has re-invented himself since joining Bath and they think the world of him,’’ Bennett said.
“He took a lot of stick from some members of the Welsh public a few years back which I thought was over the top. He has since proved he can do it again at the very highest level.”
Priestland left the Scarlets for Bath at the end of the season when a small but hostile section of so-called Welsh fans barracked him during the Fijian match four years ago. Since then he has played his way back into favour as a leading alternative to Dan Biggar.
For the series starting against Scotland on Saturday week head coach Warren Gatland has picked home-based fly-halves Gareth Anscombe and Rhys Patchell as well as Biggar, one of several English-based players unavailable for the opening game because of the Premiership’s long-standing refusal to release their internationals for Tests played outside the agreed three-week window.
Along with Bath team-mates Luke Charteris and Jamie Roberts, Priestland, is one of a trio of World Cup veterans with a combined total of more than 220 Test appearances who will spend next month on the outside looking in.
Charteris, the oldest of the three at 35, last played for Wales 18 months ago and would appear to have little hope of making a fourth World Cup in Japan this time next year.
Roberts, 32 next month, has been left out since making his 94th appearance last November, against the All Blacks.
Both will have seen the writing on the wall but neither is prepared to give up on Wales just yet. Gatland has assured them that ‘the door isn’t shut,’ that the 37-man squad is ‘a reflection of where we are depth-wise and an opportunity to look at younger players’.
Priestland, at 31 still young enough and good enough to be a serious contender for the World Cup, would not have been in any fit state to help Wales next month had they picked him.
Bath say that knee ligament damage sustained during last week’s eventful Champions’ Cup tie against Toulouse will keep him out of action for six-to-eight weeks. A return before Christmas will give Priestland time to play himself back into the reckoning for the Six Nations.