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FEATURE Rees-Zammit blow and injury crisis leave Wales with Himalayan task

Rees-Zammit blow and injury crisis leave Wales with Himalayan task
4 months ago

The consolation for rugby followers on the western side of the River Severn is that it’s not the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Welsh rugby team seemed to lose a significant player every month.

Back then, Jonathan Davies, John Devereux and Allan Bateman departed for rugby league one after another, with plenty of their countrymen making the same calls, including Jonathan Griffiths, David Young, Mark Jones and Rowland Phillips.

John Ryan and Ron Waldron, Wales’ coaches during that era, must have dreaded opening their morning newspapers, while the evening editions were none too comforting, either. Nor did Welsh rugby’s bible at the time, the Rugby Annual for Wales, serve up tea and sympathy, describing the 1989-90 campaign as “a season of discontent and disappointment”.

Really, Waldron could have been forgiven for barking back: “What the hell do you expect when we’ve lost most of our best players?” But he didn’t – of course he didn’t. That wasn’t Ron’s style.  Unsurprisingly, though, further miseries followed.

Jonathan Davies
Jonathan Davies (centre) and John Devereux (second right) were two Welsh players who enjoyed success in rugby league after heading north (Photo Gary M Prior/Allsport)

It could be worse for Warren Gatland, then.

He is seeing only one player depart ahead of this Six Nations, with Louis Rees-Zammit opting to pursue a career in American football with immediate effect.

That said, the 22-year-old is taking with him strike power, something the Wales class of 2024 doesn’t appear to possess in abundance now their star winger is off limits. He may still have parts of his game that need shining up, but Rees-Zammit is a player who can make gold out of straw, who can score from improbable positions and trouble any defence when given the space to bring his speed into play. He is, in short, an individual Gatland can ill-afford to be without, especially at a time when Wales are in transition.

Will his decision to join the NFL International Player Pathway work out? Hard to say, but Jonathan Davies once said of his switch to rugby league: “It was like stepping into a flying saucer – you were going to a different world.” Davies was at least still playing a form of rugby, and he was travelling only 170 miles to do so. If Rees-Zammit lands a place with an NFL team, he will be playing a completely different sport on a different continent. And he will no longer be known by everyone.

Rees-Zammit will have to head back to square one, with no guarantees at all. He will have one thing in his favour – his pace. NFL teams value speed almost as much as they value power: the best teams are usually the fastest ones.

As the cross-coding Welsh prop Glyn Shaw told Davies after he’d signed for Widnes: “You leave Wales on top of the world. It isn’t until you step onto a league pitch for the first time that you realise that you are not on top any more. You’re at the bottom.”

Paul Thorburn would understand, perhaps remembering the day he lined up as a kicker for Los Angeles Rams against Denver Broncos in a pre-season friendly at Wembley. A big name in union, the then Wales full-back quickly found such status counted for little in his new environment. Match commentators referred to him as ‘Thornburn’, while the name on the back of his shirt in the dressing room is said to have read ‘Thurburn’ before being amended.

We’ll call the whole experience humbling.

Rees-Zammit, then, will have to head back to square one, with no guarantees at all.

He will have one thing in his favour – his pace. NFL teams value speed almost as much as they value power: the best teams are usually the fastest ones. That will suit the Welsh wanderer, a 10.44 seconds man over 100 metres. When he gets into his stride, pigeons are in danger of being caught. He doesn’t just have the ability to move from 0 to 60 in the blink of an eye. He can also hold his speed, too. Ken Jones, JJ Williams and Nigel Walker were fast; Rees-Zammit is up there with them when it comes to the list of the quickest players ever to pull on a Wales jersey.

Louis Rees-Zammit
Louis Rees-Zammit’s blistering pace brought him five tries at the recent Rugby World Cup (Photo Paul Harding/Getty Images)

Anyway, Wales are just going to have to learn to cope without his services.

But just a couple of weeks ago, they looked as if they might have him and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso in their back-three pool for the Six Nations. Now, they will have neither, with the latter deciding to declare for England. He is raw and needs developing, but there are probably tribes people in the Amazonian rainforest, as yet untouched by civilization, who would be able to discern that he’s a serious prospect.

Could he have been persuaded to throw in his lot with Wales? Perhaps the more pertinent question is should someone born and raised in Wales need to be persuaded to play for them?  Accepted, the Welsh Rugby Union and their selection rules complicate matters, but, still, aren’t such things negotiable, so to speak?

Whatever, he is England’s player now, and, following the decision of Rees-Zammit to have a tilt at a new sport, Wales have suffered two heavy blows.

In fact, why stop there? News that Dewi Lake’s hamstring problem is of the serious variety is another setback, along with the update that Taulupe Faletau has failed to recover from the broken arm he sustained at the World Cup. Lob in the bumps that are sidelining Jac Morgan, Rhys Davies, Ben Carter and Nicky Smith and it seems reasonable to suggest that even the most optimistic Wales supporter will think twice about putting the kids’ inheritance on the side in red doing something special over the coming months.

Perhaps the coaches will see it as the start of a long journey, as they look towards the next World Cup. Fast-forward to 2027 and how many outsiders will be worrying about a difficult Six Nations three years previously if the squad comes together for the global tournament in Australia?

Maybe the lack of outside expectations will suit Wales.

Gatland, after all, appears to relish his squad being written off.

Maybe it is where Wales are at, with Alun Wyn Jones, Justin Tipuric, Dan Biggar, Leigh Halfpenny and Rhys Webb having left the Test scene over the past eight months, Rees-Zammit decamping to the USA, Liam Williams in Japan and injuries exposing Welsh rugby’s shallow talent pool.

Perhaps the coaches will see it as the start of a long journey, as they look towards the next World Cup. Fast-forward to 2027 and how many outsiders will be worrying about a difficult Six Nations three years previously if the squad comes together for the global tournament in Australia?

Questions can still be asked, though.

How risky is it to enter a Six Nations campaign without a proven Test-class scrummaging tighthead? What does it say about the development process if there isn’t one around and available? Maybe the closest thing to a strong set-piece No. 3 in Wales right now is Tom Botha at the Ospreys, but he isn’t renowned for ripping up trees by the forest-full around the field. Still, might it have been worth including him in the set-up, to have a safety net in place in case things do go wrong in the pushing and shoving game?

Tom Rogers
Scarlets’ Tom Rogers is a contender to start at full-back for Wales, but has only played three times there this season (Photo Ryan Hiscott/Getty Images)

Who plays at full-back against Scotland, assuming the injured Cameron Winnett won’t be ready? Ioan Lloyd is an option, but he has been playing most of his rugby at fly-half for the Scarlets. Much the same applies to Tom Rogers, who has started just three times in the No. 15 shirt in 2023-24, with the rest of his outings coming on the wing. Josh Adams might be another option, but he hasn’t started a single game as last line of defence in the current campaign. All in all, then, not exactly another triumph for those charged with nurturing young talent in Wales.

There are worries at fly-half, too. Talk that Jarrod Evans might be available hasn’t resulted in the Harlequins-based playmaker winning a call, albeit he has had an injury. The back-row also looks short on depth. Ross Moriarty, anyone?

Liam Belcher, outstanding for Cardiff this season, and Sam Parry can consider themselves unlucky not to feature, while Morgan Morris, although injured, must feel he has offended someone in another life, so often is he passed over.

But selection is subjective, and Gatland has a good record in that particular art.

He will know, however, that the coming challenge for Wales is of Himalayan proportions.

Those charged with managing expectations in the Welsh set-up will need to be on top of their games.

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