Injury crisis set to threaten Wales' Six Nations chances with seven key players out
Wales could launch their Six Nations campaign in Dublin next Sunday without almost half the team that destroyed Ireland's World Cup dream.
The countries' Six Nations opener comes four months after Wales claimed a comprehensive World Cup quarter-final win in Wellington.
While Ireland must find a way of coping without injured captain Brian O'Driscoll for the entire tournament, Wales might arrive at the Aviva Stadium minus seven influential players boasting 330 caps between them.
Cause for concern: Wales coach Warren Gatland will be missing a number of key players including Gethin Jenkins
Prop Gethin Jenkins (knee), together with locks Luke Charteris (wrist) and Alun-Wyn Jones (toe) are confirmed non-starters, while Shane Williams' retirement from Test rugby leaves a considerable void on the left wing.
But adding to Wales boss Warren Gatland's fitness worries are centre Jamie Roberts, fly-half Rhys Priestland and flanker Dan Lydiate, with assistant coach Rob Howley describing the next 48 hours as 'critical'.
Roberts has not played since suffering a knee injury two days before Christmas, while Priestland hurt his knee during the Scarlets' Heineken Cup victory in Castres 10 days ago and Newport Gwent Dragons flanker Lydiate has been nursing an ankle problem.
The Wales squad has now returned from a week-long training camp in Poland, where Howley admitted Priestland and Lydiate had “very limited” participation.
Toe no: Alun Wyn Jones looks set to miss out
Gatland has already put back his team announcement from tomorrow until midday on Friday, although Howley insists Wales are hopeful of their injured players recovering in time.
'The participation of Rhys and Dan was very limited (in Poland). They did two or three sessions, but it was limited skills,' Howley said.
'The next 48 hours are pretty critical. They have come in this morning a little bit sore after last week's endeavours, but we are hopeful.
'Jamie participated a little bit more in Poland, but we are still uncertain about him. He has not played for a long time, five or six weeks, and we will see how the next 48 hours go for him.
'We will see how the injured players come out of the sessions today and tomorrow.
The next 48 hours will be critical for three or four players.'
Key man: James Hook should come in for Wales
While James Hook and Ryan Jones would be respective favourites to replace Priestland and Lydiate, 21-year-old uncapped Ospreys centre Ashley Beck is making a strong case for inclusion should Roberts be sidelined.
'Ashley was very impressive in Poland,' Howley added. 'He has a great skill set and great ability.
'He has a knack of making line breaks for the Ospreys and putting players into space, and he did well in the two Heineken Cup games against Saracens last month, in attack and defence.
'If Jamie does not make it, we have quality players to come into the mix and we would look at combinations.
'I would have no qualms about playing Ashley because he has played well in the Heineken Cup, which is a measure of a player's quality.'
Despite Wales beating Ireland in last year's Six Nations – albeit aided by a controversial Mike Phillips try – and then eliminating them from World Cup contention, Howley expects a ferocious examination at the Aviva Stadium.
Big loss: Ireland will be without influential centre Brian O'Driscoll
But he also believes the absence of O'Driscoll, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, will be 'a big miss' for their opponents.
'Ireland will be different from the World Cup,” he said.
'England turned up in Dublin (last March) to take the Grand Slam, and that is the Irish team we expect to show up on Sunday. They played with an intensity, and England were blown away 24-8.
'They will be tactically astute. Everyone knows how well Leinster, Munster and Ulster are playing, and they will feed off that confidence.
'They have world-class players, but I think they will miss Brian O'Driscoll. I was fortunate to play alongside him in 2001 for the Lions, and he influences play with or without the ball.
'He is a great defensive player, and having a senior player missing would be felt by any side.
'He is one of the great centres over the last decade. Look at the tries he has scored in the championship.
'It is like us with Shane Williams. Brian O'Driscoll is a big miss for Ireland, and we have to take advantage of that.'