END OF THE WORLD CUP: Rhys Webb is carried off the pitch in Cardiff on Saturday
LONDON, 8 Sept - Coach Warren Gatland adopted a brave face on Tuesday after his Wales squad suffered a second wretched blow in less than 24 hours with the withdrawal through injury of scrum-half Rhys Webb.
Compounding the misery of star full-back Leigh Halfpenny’s knee ligament damage, the Welsh Rugby Union reported that Webb’s “significant midfoot injury”, also suffered during Saturday’s international against Italy at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium, would keep him out of the tournament too.
Yet New Zealander Gatland did his best to put a positive spin on a potentially calamitous double disappointment as he stressed that the replacements for the key duo, scrum-half Mike Phillips and winger Eli Walker, were both quality performers who now had a “great opportunity” to shine.
Phillips’ return, after failing to make the final cut for the squad, is a considerable comfort for the Welsh, with the 33-year-old British and Irish Lion both hugely experienced - he is just one cap away from making it a combined total of 100 for both the Lions and Wales - and a battle-hardened winner in many big games.
Replacements of high calibre
"It is extremely disappointing for both Leigh and Rhys,” said Gatland. “They have worked exceptionally hard to establish themselves on the world stage and to prepare for the tournament and we wish them all the best with their recovery.
"After announcing the squad we spoke about the need for players to remain ready for action and is a great opportunity for Mike and Eli. It's great that we can call on players of this calibre. To bring Mike's experience into the squad is a bonus along with Eli's exciting talent.”
Phillips, who made his international debut 12 years ago, has been plying his trade in Paris for Racing Metro at the start of the Top 14 season while 23-year-old Ospreys wing Walker was blooded in the national team against Ireland a month ago.
Amid the pervading gloom in Wales, former wing wizard Shane Williams talked about Welsh rugby being “in mourning”. However, Webb, who will have more scans on his foot and knee, shrugged off his own disappointment with an upbeat statement on social media about Wales’ chances.
Desperate for good news
“Really disappointed to be ruled out of the RWC,” he said. “After all the hard work I’ve put in over the summer, words can’t describe how I’m feeling. I really believe that Wales can go on and create something special. I appreciate all the messages. It’s great to have so much support from all around the world but let’s get behind the boys. See you in 2016.”
Phillips has gradually been moving down the scrum-half pecking order but his pedigree is such that he could yet leapfrog both Gareth Davies and Lloyd Williams in the new battle for the No 9 shirt as he looks forward to a third World Cup and the chance to add to his tally of 94 Wales caps.
Yet after the loss of centre Jonathan Davies at the start of the summer and now two more exceptional performers in his back line, Gatland needs to hear some good news about Liam Williams, Halfpenny’s potential stand-in at full-back who has only returned to full training this week following foot surgery.